As tempting as it may be to lay blame for the coronavirus at China’s doorstep, retribution is neither productive nor fair.
Coping with the ever-shifting flow of information on the coronavirus over the past seven months has been like trying to take a drink from a firehose.
How will our country take care of us? How can we best take of ourselves and loved ones? How serious will it get? Am I going to die? How are other countries handling the pandemic?
All of this information, much of it changing so fast, it appeared conflicting as various experts and authorities learned more about it – only a few steps ahead anyone with an internet connection – gave rise to a climate of fear as the virus swept across the world.
The problem with fear is that it tends to make people irrational. And when this thing that threatens our very existence is invisible, it is inevitable that the more panicked will seek out a more tangible “enemy” to point at. Blame may not solve the problem, but it helps give shape to a nebulous set of fears.
Fingers of blame have been pointed in many directions since news of the virus first broke, but the earliest and biggest target to date has been China.
Given that China was the site of the first case, and the virus appears to have originated there – with various working theories as to its exact origins – it was inevitable that China would be put under the spotlight before the coronavirus even spread very far beyond China’s borders.
Given the conditions of modern international travel and commerce, its eventual spread to the rest of the world – from China or any other place of origin – was inevitable. Even during the “Spanish Flu” over 100 years ago, the planet was sufficiently globalized that it spread swiftly around the planet.
As the spread and death toll in China rose alarmingly from the beginning of 2020, the rest of the world looked on in fear, and those fears were realized by late February when the infection and death rates in Europe, most notably in Italy and Spain, with the UK close behind, skyrocketed.
In some countries, particularly Western ones, individuals, political commentators and politicians began to blame China for the virus. Individuals mainly to give substance to their fears, commentators to attract an audience and politicians largely to deflect blame from themselves, particularly if they had been slow to respond to what had become an inevitable public health crisis.
The result was a hysteria of a percentage of the population in various countries denouncing the Chinese government (including unsubstantiated claims that the virus escaped from a Wuhan research lab) and targeting individuals on the street with Chinese characteristics with verbal and even physical attacks.
Similar assaults occurred after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, targeting Muslims or any vulnerable middle easterner or sub-continental. Past epidemics, such as smallpox and the “Spanish flu” saw similar appalling behavior, though little of it was as that widely publicized. (Partly due to fears of normalizing and inspiring more attacks) It appears to be a human tendency, exposing pre-existing fears of and bigotry towards “the other” – people different from themselves.
The good news is that historically, as a disease becomes better understood and panic eases, so do the verbal and physical attacks.
Tackling the Virus
China, in the unfortunate position as the “first responder” reportedly initially balked at facing up to the reality of the threat, and has taken a lot of flak for this. But according to Virologist Shao Yiming with China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, China first had to “move from unknown to known, and then known to reaction,” identifying the virus first before proceeding. “For all the other countries it’s totally different, since they started with a known disease and preliminary knowledge about how to control it… other countries have had delays of 4, 6, and even 8 weeks,” Shao said.
China in fact moved very quickly, and from the first cases being identified in late December, strict lockdown, testing and track and trace measures were firmly in place in January 2020.
In less than three months – by late March, 2020 – China had flattened the curve of infections (and deaths a short time after), and have maintained it – sometimes involving some area-specific re-lockdowns when flare-ups occurred.
The initial lockdown was decisive, and to many in the outside – and as yet relatively uninfected – world looked extreme – but it worked, and China’s quick taming of the virus spread bestowed some justification on the policies.
In retrospect, taking the decisive and more extreme route actually helped minimize the economic impact of a more timid approach that is manifesting now in other countries, such as the USA and Brazil. China, the world’s most populous country, now ranks #31 in total infections and is largely back to “normal” (albeit the “new normal”).
As China was emerging from the darkness, Spain, Italy and the UK, among other nations were in the throes of packed hospitals, with soaring death rates. China, which had quickly ramped up its medical equipment production began shipping ventilators and PPE to countries that had been hit hard by the virus – as early as mid-March. China also shared the virus sequence and other information they had learned during its battle.
In May 2020, Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet medical journal said in an interview with CCTV that it is “not helpful” and “unfair” to blame China for being the source of the Covid-19 pandemic in an interview with Chinese state media. Richard Horton said the international community should instead work with the Chinese authorities in dealing with the outbreak.
“China didn’t want this epidemic,” Horton said regarding the pressure China has been under to take responsibility as the origin of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. “China isn’t responsible for this pandemic. It’s happened.”
Shao Yiming also lamented that the early, often politically motivated attacks and mutual mistrust between China over the virus damaged the spirt of cooperation, but expressed optimism about future cooperation. “We need a stronger global health surveillance network, and we need to build a health emergency task force at the global level.”
This would require considerable cross-cultural cooperation, and though have been difficulties with trust, sharing information and cultural misunderstandings on all sides, perhaps the positive takeaway from this crisis will be the realization that leading nations must learn to get along and trust each other, for the benefit of everyone involved. When it comes to this pandemic and any future ones, it is crucial that we all fight on the same side.