By Max Frost, Chronicle Special Correspondent
Should we call COVID-19 the China virus? President Trump is doing so, earning the ire of his opponents who think he’s inciting racism and scapegoating China.
But President Trump has a point. COVID-19 is a distinctly Chinese creation: a product of the Chinese Communist Party’s repression and censorship, and China’s often illegal wildlife trade. To stop the spread of this disease and others like it, it’s important to understand why it originated specifically in China.
First, it’s worth noting that diseases are often known by the places where they originate. Lyme disease is named after the Connecticut town of Lyme. Ebola after Africa’s Ebola river. The Spanish Flu didn’t originate in Spain, but the Spanish media were the first to report on it. West Nile Virus originated in Uganda’s West Nile district.
These naming conventions presumably weren’t racist, which suggests that the uproar over the terms “Wuhan Flu” or “China virus” are more a function of modern politics than anything else.
Yet precedent aside, COVID-19 has had the impact it has precisely because it emerged in China. We now know that the early cases of the virus emerged in November. Over the following weeks, Chinese authorities systematically played down the threat.
They lied about the virus’s communicability. They censured doctors and journalists who spoke up for “spreading rumors.” Wuhan’s newspapers didn’t cover the virus until weeks after the first cases.
In mid-January, when thousands were already infected, the government of Wuhan proceeded with an annual potluck, which over 100,000 people attended.
As the disease spread, Chinese authorities cracked down on those who challenged the party line. Journalists reporting that the situation in Wuhan was far more dire than state news was reporting went missing. Academics who criticized Xi Jinping were arrested. “Internet police” began knocking on the doors of those who posted about the virus on social media.
In most countries, the response to a rapidly spreading disease would be to gather as much information as possible and protect the population. In China, where the government’s authority relies solely on a perception of competence and stability, the priority was to protect the power of the Chinese Communist Party. This repression and hubris facilitated the disease’s rapid spread. It partially explains the global crisis we face today.
It’s not yet clear precisely from which animal COVID-19 originated, however it’s believed to have come from Wuhan’s live wildlife and meat, or “wet,” market.
The Chinese wildlife market is the leading driver of the international illegal wildlife trade, and many poached or otherwise illegally trafficked animals head to markets like the one in Wuhan.
One animal that scientists have suggested may have initially caused the outbreak is the pangolin, which resembles an armadillo and has become the world’s most poached animal (Chinese traditional medicine uses its scales and some eat its meat).
Animal rights groups have routinely pushed the Chinese government to crack down on wildlife markets, which drive the trade, yet China has refused to seriously do so.
Even if COVID-19 originated in an animal legally available for purchase in China and elsewhere, like certain types of bat or the palm civet, there is no other country as connected to the global economy as China that eats such potentially dangerous foods. It’s true that in some places in Asia and Africa bush meat remains common, however in these places, people often eat the foods out of necessity or tradition and there are no direct flights from, say, Liberia to San Francisco.
In China, these foods are often delicacies, which the rich pay top dollar to import. And from Wuhan, one could fly nonstop to San Francisco, New York, London or Paris. Given China’s prosperity and connections to the global economy, it has an obligation to restrict such dangerous, voluntary activities.
I spent over two months in China. I was never offered bat, cat, rat, armadillo, or other bush meats. It’s a perverse generalization to suggest that any of this is normal Chinese fare, or that we should punish Chinese people or anyone of Chinese descent for the spread of the virus. Any attempt by our president or others to use the term “China virus” to do this should be wholeheartedly condemned.
Yet if President Trump and his officials use the term “China virus” to hold the Chinese government accountable for the global spread of COVID-19, to call for greater freedoms for the Chinese people, and to push for sensible regulations on the wildlife trade, we should support him. After all, these are the changes necessary to avoid another global pandemic.
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