The Politics of Coronavirus

Muhammad Firas Shams

The outbreak of COVID-19 is already being viewed globally through partisan lens of right wing nationalism, making bids to curb the virus difficult. China finds itself taking the flak for being non-transparent on the actual number of cases and the provenance of the disease. A pandemonium of allegations are making the rounds on how the “sick man” of Asia, as described by the Wall Street Journal, launched a biological weapon against the Western world. The virus is Christmas for fake news peddlers. Take Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton who gained notoriety with a speculation of his own about how the virus was created in Wuhan’s bio safety level 4 super laboratory, the only one in China to carry out research on human infectious diseases. Cotton who spoke like a true Republican crusader abandoned all reason by “deducing” that the virus might be an experiment gone wrong or purposeful release of a bio-weapon, hence, China poses a Soviet Union level threat.

Unfortunately for the Chinese, such diseases have in a way become synonymous with their country. Wind the clock to 2003, SARS emanated in a wet market situated in Southern China spreading to over 27 countries resulting in almost 800 deaths.The traces of the virus were found in farmed civet cats. So far we know there is some evidence that the virus originated in a bat and transmitted to a pangolin before infecting a human. For the symbiont to jump between species all three have to come in contact with each other and China’s squalid wet markets, like in Wuhan, are the perfect breeding ground for the spread of such a deadly pandemic. The decision to permit private farming came in the 1970’s when the Communist government unable to feed its 900 million population beset by famine. Therefore, while large corporations controlled production of popular foods like poultry, peasant households in order to eke out a living turned to wild animals. With government backing, this measure resulted in poverty alleviation; and in 1988, the Wildlife Protection law was amended to term wild life as state-owned resources providing immunity to those involved in farming and trading of these animals. This was a spur for small farms, as breeding and domestication of wildlife turned into a multi-million dollar industry, which also became the hub for illegal trading of endangered animals from around the world, funneled into Chinese wet markets for great profits. Due to the immense lobbying power of the industry over the Communist government, there have only been temporary bans on the trade of infected and endangered animals over the years. In other words, it has been encouraged to grow as products generated by the industry are marketed for its sex-enhancement, disease curing qualities making them quite popular with the small Chinese elite. Hence, safety of 1.4 billion people was jeopardized to favor a meagre but influential proportion of the Chinese population.

The novel coronavirus has provided fodder for Europe’s populist right to further the pathology of nationalism, renewing their clamor for crackdown on migrants and closing down of borders. One of the hardline proponents of anti-immigration measures, Matteo Salvini, the former interior minister of Italy, has accused migrants from Africa of carrying the disease to Italian shores, as the country has become the epicenter of the virus in Europe. But his claims don’t hold water as much needed cohesiveness is required in the European Union, home to 450 million people, which has an open border policy as part of its fundamentals. The EU which is trying to overcome the reeling effect of Brexit needs a unified message to keep the pathogen at bay. Albeit, that doesn’t seem to happen as the likes of Marine Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are singing a nativist populist tune of creating a link between the virus and immigration due to open borders which reminisces the border crisis of 2015 caused by the influx migrants from war-torn countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called border restrictions as impeding technical expertise and aid from reaching the affected areas along with casting a shadow on economic activity in these countries. Marina Cino Pagliarello, at the London School of Economics, described the imbroglio as convergence of two crises exposing the dearth of trust and solidarity in the largest political and economic body in the world. For the European right-wingers like Salvini, the enemy hasn’t changed – migrants.

Across the Atlantic, Trump and his retinue are blaming China of Thucydides Trap. The Chinese Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai who has overruled the allegation, finds himself in the crosshairs. China’s longest serving diplomat in the US has his prowess put to the test amid the outbreak of the coronavirus and in the face of swelling animosity for China amongst the US legislators. Recently, in a tit-for-tat move, the US designated five different Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions” and state apparatuses for propaganda after China expelled three Wall Street Journal journalists for referring to China as the “sick man of Asia” in their opinion piece.

The coronavirus infodemic ought not to be understood in the context of the great power rivalry, where China is seen as waging a biowarfare or the American military being accused of bringing the virus to Wuhan. Such accusations are based on obstinate prejudice, which is not what that world needs right now to rein in the virus. The path of confrontation will lead to further deglobalization, protectionism, tariffs, closing down of borders and erecting of walls which will only aggravate the pandemic.

The only way to curb the crisis is not through fearmongering or xenophobia but through international collaboration. Solution to a global disease has to be global, through exchange of ideas, better communication and increased coordination.

By being hermetic, no one country can cease the spread of an epidemic with the help of the outside world. Alongside this, the international community must be moved to put pressure on China to halt its wet market operations and illegal wildlife trade for good, since it only contributes a very portion in China’s gigantic GDP, hurting the second largest economy the most.

About Arif Qureshi

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