Coronavirus-related xenophobia overlooks the full story

Satoshi x Daisuke by Anna Vanes (c)

Speculation that the coronavirus, COVID-19, was genetically engineered by China, or anyone else, has been challenged by scientific research which “firmly” suggested that the virus evolved naturally from an existing virus. Bats are thought to be the original hosts of the virus (though this is as yet unproven) and, as bat-human virus transmission is rare, scientists favour the theory that an intermediary host existed between bats and humans.

Possible candidate for the host species is the pangolin, sold in the Wuhan wet market, despite a national ban, which is the location strongly linked with the outbreak. The civet cat, also sold at times in such markets, is thought to have been the intermediary host of the earlier SARS-COVID 1, which was detected in 2002, in Guangdong, southern China. However, the earliest known case of the current coronavirus, SARS-COVID 2, was found, on November 17 2019, in someone who had no contact with the Wuhan wet market and has lead some to consider whether coronavirus transmission passed through livestock, such as pigs, before reaching workers at the wet market.

The intensification of farming in China has not only created industrial farming reliant on high concentrations of livestock but driven smallholding farmers out of the livestock industry and towards “wild” species to make a living. They have also physically been pushed out to uncultivated zones, such as forest, where contact with bats becomes more likely. This encroachment of human farming into these ecosystems have lead to other zoonoses – human to animal transmissions – including Ebola and HIV.

Nonetheless, it should come as little surprise that the fear and suspicion naturally engendered by the SARS-COVID 2 or the coronavirus, as it is popularly known, is engendering xenophobic feeling and being exploited by demagogues. They create narratives, long preceding the coronavirus, which use selective marshaling of facts to depict others as threats and inferior.

Chinese tech companies have been treated with suspicion about their possible role in espionage on behalf of the authoritarian Chinese government. Whilst such suspicion may have grounds, that Britain and its allies routinely work with tech firms for surveillance purposes, including, demanding that “backdoors” be created in encrypted software to provide them access to user information is less widely discussed. Britain has promoted tech firms, , including Chinese firms, whose surveillance products are sold and utilised by human rights abusing regimes and, itself, has licensed the sale of such products to regimes directly such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

The selective avoidance of aspects Britain and its allies’ records also applies to treatment of animals in the food production process. Whilst contact between wild animals and humans is better regulated, conditions for livestock in Britain’s US-style mega-farms have been described by NGO, Compassion in World Farming, as “often barren, overcrowded and frequently filthy.” The RSPCA says of British farming generally: “The law alone is not always strong or detailed enough to ensure that they all have a good quality of life, and are transported and slaughtered humanely.” In a 2012 report, the government’s independent advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, found that: “The prevalence of many endemic diseases in farm animals is too high and shows little sign of reduction over time.” Past reports suggest that there are thousands of major violations of animal welfare laws in British abattoirs every year.

Britain has experienced serious outbreaks of the deadly brain disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease, which can be transmitted to humans through consumption of contaminated meat, and the foot and mouth disease, notably in 2001, both suspected to be linked to infected meat and bone feed given to cattle and pigs respectively. It is thought that the infected feed was imported from abroad, though the origins are not known. Cattle are now required to be fed vegan meals only, though BSE still occurs sporadically, with a recent case in 2018, in Scotland. The foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, which lead to the culling of some 6.5 million livestock, exposed cruelty and poor hygiene at the Northumberland pig fattening farm where the outbreak was traced to. The farmer was found guilty of unnecessary harm to pigs, not disposing of animal by-products and suspected by the district judge, though not charged, of feeding pigs untreated waste.

A wider examination of Britain’s role in damaging the environment could include its role, currently and historically, in fossil fuel consumption, carbon emissions and climate destruction, in its large scale export of hazardous electronic waste to less developed nations, most of which ends up in landfill, its role in development of military weapons which are either used directly or sold on the international market. A spike in cancers, including child cancers, and congenital birth defects in the Iraq have been linked by researchers with the use of certain munitions by US and UK forces, including toxic chemicals such as depleted uranium and white phosphate, but experts suggest further research is required to establish the cause.

The origins of the coronavirus pandemic are still being investigated and, as the detailed blog post by Varun Vasunarayanan, linked below, discusses, China did seek to obstruct public disclosure of the outbreak in Wuhan initially. Grave errors by Chinese officials also included the enabling of a 5 million person exodus from Wuhan, enabling the spread throughout the country, downplaying infection figures and early contradictory information about the possibility of person-to-person transmission.

Nonetheless, as well as halting the rise of the virus in its own country (with authoritarian powers of force and surveillance used) it has, as the Vasunarayanan discusses in his blog, taken steps to assist the world in understanding and defending against the virus: “The virus was identified by January 3; a week later, China shared the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus with WHO. It is because China released the DNA that immediate scientific work took place across the planet to find a vaccine; there are now 43 vaccine candidates, four in very early testing.”

A selective narrative of the story of the pandemic enables xenophobia and fear, strengthening the support for those who present themselves as national guardians against outsider threat. As the coronavirus outbreak epicentre has moved to the West, Westerners risk becoming the target of xenophobic rhetoric abroad.

A singular focus on the behaviour of some American consumers in, for example, Wisconsin, where staying at home to reduce transmission of the virus is advised through a “safer at home” order, might appear to confirm their responsibility for the rapid spread of the disease in the US. A food store worker in Wisconsin, writes on her blog, despairingly: “Yes, people need groceries and essential supplies and that’s why my store with all its groceries and essential supplies is considered an “essential business” that needs to stay open. What people don’t need is to bring extra people with them to shop during a pandemic as an excuse to get out of the house and temporarily cure themselves of boredom…You probably shouldn’t be bringing in a fresh newborn baby to the big box retail store at any time let alone a viral outbreak. What part of “stay at home” don’t these people get?”

Such complacency should not detract from the culpability of US leaders. The failures are extreme, from Donald Trump dismissing the virus as not being a great threat, despite warnings from US intelligence agencies, the US State Department shipping much needed coronavirus medical supplies to China in February – to the Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, reflecting on ‘game changer’ information, on 1 April, that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic individuals – when this had been discussed since January by public health experts. A ‘shelter in place’ order in Georgia was finally issued on 1 April. Some of the biggest failings are common to both Republicans and Corporate Democrats, such as the incoherent and disastrous privatised health system and the staunch opposition to single-payer healthcare, which presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, also opposes.

Whilst keeping an open mind, given that the precise origins of the coronavirus disease are still not fully understood and, in fact, its method of transmission is still being debated amongst experts, a narrow and selective approach to the facts will be misleading – precisely why it is being promoted by some.

Image created by Anna Vanes (c)

To read the blog post by Varun Vasunarayanan, ‘Growing Xenophobia Against China in the Midst of Corona Shock,” click below.

The Reader's Digest Guide to Intimate Relations

On March 25, the foreign ministers of the G7 states failed to release a statement. The United States—the president of the G7 at this time—had the responsibility for drafting the statement, which was seen to be unacceptable by several other members. In the draft, the United States used the phrase “Wuhan Virus” and asserted that the global pandemic was the responsibility of the Chinese government. Earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump had used the phrase “Chinese Virus” (which he said he would stop using) and a member of his staff was reportedly heard using the slur “Kung Flu.” On Fox News, anchor Jesse Watters explained in his unfiltered racist way “why [the virus] started in China. Because they have these markets where they eat raw bats and snakes.” Violent attacks against Asians in the United States has spiked as a consequence of the stigma driven by the Trump administration.

Quite correctly…

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‘Changing the habitat…’ – The Anxiety & Guilt of Being a Migrant of Colour

Dance with the devil_AnnVanes
Dance With The Devil by Anna Vanes (c)

Migrants, particularly from the global south, face increased threats as a result of the worldwide rise in far-right nationalism and racism represented in such governments as that of Brazil, India, Hungary and, even, the UK, whose ongoing ‘hostile environment’ policy resulted in the deportations of Black Caribbean British citizens. Anxiety in vulnerable migrants causes them to give up aspects of their identity to placate anger and reduce their exposure. Whilst not necessarily medically categorised as social anxiety, such fears replicate the pattern of vulnerability, fear and maladaptation which characterises social anxiety symptoms.

Blogger, Saurav, reflects on his own anxiety as a Nepalese migrant of four years in Finland. He recognises the benefits he has reaped in his new country in education, music and culture but has witnessed racism in Finland, whether firsthand or otherwise, including, he says, Neo-Nazism: “I never go to bars in the night just to hangout. I used to do that a lot back in Nepal. I just don’t go. Partly, because I don’t drink. But the underlying reason is, people are drunk, they feel medieval when they are drunk and starts treating you in a certain way just because of your skin color. I’ve experienced it so many times and it’s dark.”

He contrasts the positive changes he has made in his new life, including, leading a healthier lifestyle, with the perception of disapproval and, even, threat, in Finland, posed against his ethnicity and migrant status, which has made him alter his behaviour: “I started growing this feeling of immense amount of responsibilities on this new society that I started putting people’s opinions or views higher than mine in each and every thing that I did. The society’s opinions started canceling mine. I would always think on the other person’s point of view and cancel my own point of views on things. I was trying to be polite all the time even though at times, it was not me.”

He had internalised the racism and anti-migrant feeling he has experienced in Finland, he says, more frequent amongst older people. He was going beyond being polite in his new country to distorting his own sense of self and well-being to erase his own identity. He was, he realised, feeling guilty about his own existence.

Another blogger, Annie, from Australia, writes in a recent blog-post of her childhood experiences of being undermined by others, sometimes, she suggests, out of racist feeling: “At my high school, there were white students who didn’t want me to succeed and be better than them at English, the subject. For some reason, they resented some girl, perhaps even an Asian girl, topping them in class.”

At the time, she experienced social anxiety symptoms: “My teenage life was a misery. I should have stood up for myself. I should have voiced my opinions, my thoughts. Instead, conditioned by my father that to stay silent is the best way to protect yourself, I did not. I smiled, agreed, simpered, succumbed and capitulated. I was my own traitor.”

Annie writes that she has restored her self-esteem and is able to assert herself. Saurav, a new migrant in Finland, seems to still be on that journey. He writes: “But the strong ones rode & sailed around the world and set the rules about how much of this world is accessible for certain group of people. Created borders. Created races. Created nationality. Created currency value. Created walls in our life that how much we want and are willing to, it’s super difficult to connect with people from different culture. Its important to know we can exist in any part of the world without feeling guilty of being here.”

In the face of organised and threatening racist policies from governments and intimidation from groups or gangs, overcoming fear to assert one’s own identity cannot be easy. It is likely, with such feeling on the rise globally, migrants will have to continue to balance fear and self-protection against a need to express their true selves. As ever, the best protection from fear will be organisation, education and solidarity.

Image designed by Anna Vanes.

To read the full blog-post by Sauvar Tamrakar, “Changing the habitat, belongingness, responsibilities, politeness & self-sabotage” click below:

My Dark Cave

As we move to new places in this world, we start developing a feeling of immense amount of responsibility to adapt/integrate towards the new society in such a way that we cancel so many things about ourselves.

I moved to Finland back in 2016, it has been 4 years. I’ve learned many great things in my life in this period of time and have also learned many things that disgusts me. I am here to tell you my story transparently and I suggest anyone reading this should read it as a human-being rather than reading it as the given identity of yours, whoever you might be.
Territorial things are anchored in our brains from the history of our ancestors. We feel comfortable in certain territory, feel the belongingness and struggle to find the same feelings in new places. Whoever opposes to this should try moving to new culture/places for at…

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Postcards from Berlin – Public Art for our Age of Anxiety

A public art project collaboration turned book – Postcards from Berlin, from Timelapse

In our age of anxiety and with the rise of extreme nationalism and xenophobia globally, Turkish academic and writer, Elif Shafak has urged a need for greater “emotional intelligence:” “(w)e need to talk about anxiety, fears, expectations, hopes, frustrations. It’s okay to have all of these feelings, and together we can find a better way forward than the way suggested to us by all of these populist demagogues.”

Today, the UK has the legacy of the so-called “hostile environment” policy which turned banks, employers and landlords into immigration officers, resulting in treating, “every immigrant as an illegal unless they could prove otherwise — and then often rejected their proof even when it was overwhelming.” Particularly targeted, in what became known as the ‘Windrush Scandal’ were immigrants born in former British colonies, especially, from the Caribbean, who were legally in the country as citizens under the British Nationality Act 1948. As well as cases of being threatened with removal, detained, denied medical care, at least eighty-three were wrongfully deported.

Immigration enforcement raids have been conducted with disproportionate severity and/or force. Under the amended Licensing Act 2003, s.179, immigration enforcement officials claim the right to forcibly raid any restaurant, hotel or other licensed premises to investigate suspected immigration law breaches. No cause, evidence, warrant or named senior authorising person need be provided. Two-thirds (63%) of those arrested for illegal working are Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani or Chinese with, “the inference for other nationals working illegally, especially if they were not employed in restaurants and takeaways, was that the likelihood of being arrested for working illegally was low and the likelihood of removal was negligible,” according to a review by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

The UK participates, too, in a European “hostile environment” policy whereby the rescuing of migrants in the Mediterranean is not only neglected but opposed and, also, criminalised. Pia Klemp, a captain of a rescue ship from Sea-Watch, responsible for helping to save hundreds of migrant lives, has been charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigration in Italy after arrest in 2017 and faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty. Carola Rackete, another rescue ship captain, was arrested in June, this year, after bringing 40 migrants into port in Italy but was released. Rescue NGOs risk fines of up to £50,000 if they enter Italian waters. In 2014, the British government revealed that it will not fund any planned EU search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, arguing that saving lives incentivises illegal migration and increases deaths. The EU has suspended naval patrols after disagreements over how to share responsibility for those rescued at sea.

The UN estimates that 2,275 migrants drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2018, at an average rate of six people a day. This was down from the over 3,000 who died in 2017. Approximately, 700 have died so far this year, with up to 150 people dying, including children, in an incident in July when two boats capsized off the coast of Libya. The UN commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi called for European nations to resume search and rescue missions and for an end to migrant detentions in conflict-ridden Libya.

The situation has been described as a “moral crisis” for Europe and one that has deep historical roots. 100 years ago, in 1919, racialised violence erupted in port cities in the UK, fuelled by high post-war unemployment, Mobs targeted, in particular, black communities, including seaman who had served on British ships during the war. The government were under pressure from wider social unrest, as police, soldiers and workers went on strike. A voluntary repatriation scheme aimed particularly at black and mixed race men was introduced. The Home Office informed authorities in Liverpool, “while it is not possible to deport compulsorily any coloured men who are British subjects it is considered desirable that so far as possible all unemployed coloured men should be induced to return to their own countries as quickly as possible”.

Postcards from Berlin brings together the artwork of four very different ‘migrants’ to Berlin as part of a project lead by Brits, Tim Free and Brian Neish, a writer and artist team who collaborate under the name, Timelapse. They reached out to photographer/filmmaker, Abdulsalam Ajaj who is amongst the 6.7 million Syrians to have fled the civil war in Syria, which has entered its eighth year since the pro-democracy uprising of 2011. Ajaj arrived in Germany from Damascus as a self-taught photographer and digital artist in 2015. Also joining the project was Slovenian-born, Veronika Ban who settled in Berlin, in 2009, having studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice.

Whether resident or visitor, refugee or migrant, it is clear that all the artists, who largely worked independently before bringing their work together, experience and are concerned with a sense of alienation. How the alienation manifests is, however, very different for each artist and provides suggestions about personal histories, as well as commentary on modern urban life.

The distorted and blurred light of Ajaj’s work appears to go beyond social alienation to the temporal – as the city escapes beyond sight and humans and other features are barely identifiable. Veronika Ban’s colourful collage work of shadowy figures and signs suggest a world of exclusion, secrecy and memory. Brian Neish’s works juxtapose vivid close-ups of walls with images of built structures. There is beauty and comfort in the “noble decay” of the walls – a pause from troubling existentialism, offered by stillness and attention.

Tim Free’s stream-of-consciousness text responds to each image, meanwhile, and suggests a traveler searching for something evanescent: “…An invisible presence in a free city. The compulsion to reinvent, if only for aesthetic pleasure or to invoke a tsunami of likes?” He ponders on the relation between past and present as he ‘walks’ the streets in the images and of his own experience of Berlin, observing: “…the healing of wounds and a new pragmatic generation, ready for their time in the sun…”

Postcards for Berlin is not the end of the story, of course. Migrants lay down roots and, as artists, strive for new expression. Notably, Ajaj has moved from abstracted images of light to telling stories of fellow refugees in Germany and recently has been capturing ‘naked interventions’ by volunteers that present the naked body in public places. Participants and artists have spoken about experiencing a new connection with their city and their bodies through such actions and activism.

There is an important anxiety not visible in these artworks, naturally, and that is the “intellectual insecurity of Alternative Right Nationalism,” referenced in the preface to the book version of the art project. As much as the insecurity of recent migrants, we need to engage with the fears of ‘natives’ too, if our age of anxiety is not to disintegrate our society. Postcards from Berlin is a valuable project and shows us how our fear of certain conversations might be overcome.

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A public exhibition of Postcards from Berlin is planned for 2020.  To find out more about the project and other Timelapse works, visit: or @timelapse95

The artists

Abdulsalam Ajaj

Abdulsalam Ajaj is a Berlin-Neukölln-based artist who works with film and photography. He settled in Berlin in 2016 having left his native Damascus, Syria, during the ongoing civil war which arose from pro-democracy uprisings in 2011 and has descended into a fragmented conflict involving various fundamentalist militant groups and international powers.

Ajaj was educated at Jawdat Alhashimie High (scientific branch) and studied Archaeology and Museums, University of Damascus, Syria. He is a self-taught photographer, retoucher and graphic designer with further education in Germany from Weißensee Kunsthochschule, Berlin and UDK Art performance workshop for Professional Berlin.

He and his collaborator, Mischa Badasyan, have received international attention for their naked public tableau works, including the photography collection, Weil Ich Dich Liebe (Because I Love You) – a series of images of volunteers posing nude in Berlin’s metro stations. Having unsuccessfully sought permission for the shoots for several years, the artist/activists went ahead with the project without permission. Badasyan has suggested that the experience helped participants reconnect with the city and their own bodies.

Veronika Ban

Veronika Ban was born in Slovenia in 1985 and is of Slovenian-Italian heritage. She has a background in dance and theatre and wrote poetry before focusing on visual arts. She has worked with collage, murals, painting, sculpture, film and performance. She spent time in Barcelona working and performing in a “squatting socio-cultural centre” before formal study from 2004 to 2009 in Venice at the Academy of Fine Arts. She has lived in Berlin since 2009, where her daughter Teodara was born.

Ban’s is concerned that: “Art should be a mirror and should give an option of perception to reach the truth about life, however it is colored, personally or politically, whether it speaks about emotions of an individual or about the society we live in…”

Ban says of her approach, “(t)he main symbol I’ve always used for describing the society are bricks. Bricks are like particles, together creating something bigger. As in life, moments create time, experiences compose life stories, and individuals make society… For example, in music we have melody which is composed of musical notes. However, in my artworks you can find many different symbols speaking about secretes of life.”

Brian Neish

Brian is a full-time artist based in his home county of Derbyshire who, alongside Tim Free, is creator of the Timelapse public art projects. He is fascinated by painted surfaces and the exploration of time and experience – “noble decay” – through the layering of paint, colour and texture. It was in 2010 that Brian became a full-time artist. Prior to this he worked as a Senior Lecturer in Art Education at LSU College of Higher Education and the University of Chichester. This followed his time in Primary Education specialising in Art & Design. He originally studied at King Alfred’s College, Winchester where he graduated in 1985 with a First Class Honours Degree in Art & Education. He also completed a post-graduate year of study in 1990 at Dartington College of Arts in Devon.

Tim Free

Tim Free is a London-based writer and actor with a background in theatre, music and performance. As a writer, he is strongly influenced by social history and the Mass Observation Movement, a social research organisation started in 1937 with the objective of capturing everyday life through volunteers and, in some cases, paid investigators. As well as exploring ideas and history, Free seeks to “try and capture the essence of the event, thereby giving the material a vitality that might lend itself to later reading and interpretation.”