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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