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Covid-19, Western hypocrisy orientalism

The West's long history of 'racialising' viruses is finally coming up against a wall of truth — that the 'most advanced' countries are in fact dealing with this pandemic far worse than the supposedly backward nations in the East, writes HOLLY BARROW

AS THE Coronavirus continues to shake the globe, many have shed light on the acts of solidarity that have sprung from its devastating consequences: community aid in the form of grassroots organising; local businesses distributing essential emergency packages to those most in need, and social support networks established for the elderly. Such kindness restores some desperately needed faith in humanity.

And yet, regrettably, there are those who find — in the midst of a pandemic — an opportunity to incite division, to revisit archaic stereotypes and to propagate a culture of blame.

While we are right to focus on the positives at this time, we similarly cannot disregard the less palatable truth that racism has once again reared its ugly head during this time of crisis.

The racialisation of epidemics is sadly something we have witnessed before. From Sars in 2003 to Ebola in 2014 to Zika in 2015, infectious diseases have become catalysts for thinly veiled racism – an unwanted side effect.

In the case of Ebola, West African migrants across the globe faced explicit racial discrimination and abuse, stigmatised and excluded solely due to the colour of their skin.

Yet this racial hostility is not always so overt. It can manifest subtly but still be equally detrimental to those affected. Deeply rooted in colonial ideology, the outbreak of diseases in non-Western countries proves an easy target for unbridled culture bias.

While Ebola saw West African culture depicted as “backward,” we are once again seeing the same sentiments directed towards East Asians as the Coronavirus spirals across Europe and the US.

Since the outbreak of the disease in Wuhan, China, in January, East Asians have faced rife sinophobia. Almost instantaneously, the West became obsessed with Chinese “wet markets” — some of which sell wild animals for human consumption. Scientists believe that Covid-19 transferred from bat to human, leading to widespread accusations surrounding Chinese culture.

One video depicting a woman eating bat soup has become synonymous with the Coronavirus in China — despite the fact that the video was shot in Palau.

With many choosing to overlook the facts, the video serves as a supposed justification for this narrative of blame, one which presents a distorted view of Chinese culture. Yes, some markets in China sell wild animals for consumption — as do others in various parts of Southeast Asia. However this does not mean that the entire population participates in or supports this.

Wet markets actually rarely sell wild animals: the “wet” refers to meat and vegetables, in contrast to a “dry” market that sells dry goods like rice — the specific sale of wild meat has been opposed for years, and was banned outright by China in February.

What’s more, the most ironic aspect of this tendency to jump to a mode of attack against the Chinese culture is that it exposes a complete lack of self-awareness.

While those across the West may consider the consumption of one type of animal — a bat in this case — as deeply immoral and primitive, Europeans and North Americans will, at the same time, think nothing of eating lamb or veal, where animals are killed in their infancy, or “black pudding,” made by thickening distilled pig’s blood with oats, or foie gras, made from the grotesquely enlarged livers of ducks and geese that have been cruelly force-fed with a tube.

There is also no taboo about eating wild animals in Western culture so long as they are the ones we are culturally accustomed to. Most rural butchers in Britain and even some supermarket deli counters will sell “game” — animals shot in the wild.

There is a great sense of hypocrisy and discrepancy in logic at play here, determined by ideas of what is “normal” and what is not — of course dictated by Western hegemony.

This is a classic example of orientalist thought. Orientalism is a disease in and of itself, one which far precedes the Coronavirus. Defined by Edward Said in 1979 as the West’s patronising and warped representations of the East as an inferior and uncivilised “other,” orientalist sentiments are becoming increasingly apparent in the current pandemic.

It is testament to the ways in which Covid-19 has brought out both the best and worst in humanity. While communities are largely banding together to help one another get through this crisis, cultures and systems which differ from our own are increasingly upheld as abhorrent in an attempt to pinpoint blame.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that countries and populations often conveyed as archaic and benighted through the lens of orientalism are in fact proving the most prepared and proficient in dealing with the outbreak.

Tellingly, the myth of Western supremacy is rapidly deteriorating as the responses of Western liberal democracies to the virus reveal gaping systemic flaws. Some of the world’s richest countries — the US and Britain particularly — have attempted to implement the most jeopardising policies and have displayed severe incompetence, placing citizens at unnecessary risk.

With state intervention typically demonised across the West, we are now witnessing a sudden shift to socialist policies and a reliance on socialist states for support at a time when capitalism’s failures are dangerously clear.

The prioritisation of profit before people has, unsurprisingly, backfired. At a time like this, universal healthcare is a must and robust state support essential. Places historically shunned and demeaned by the Global North are paving the way.

Johnson’s initial strategy of “herd immunity” — which contradicted all official health advice — saw a critical delay in the protection of the British population. This strategy would have resulted in the deaths of millions of British citizens, particularly hurting the elderly, the immunocompromised and the vulnerable.

Had a non-capitalist, non-Western nation implemented this, it would have been deemed barbaric.

This, paired with the absence of testing those with symptoms, has inevitably allowed the virus to spread undetected. As the UK’s cases climbed each day, our health workers were lacking crucial PPE and necessities such as ventilators, despite the government having had weeks to prepare. It is a similar story in the US, with the additional obstacle of having no real public healthcare system.

In contrast, the likes of Vietnam and Cuba have demonstrated efficient, people-centred responses to the pandemic, with Cuba not only seeking to look after its own citizens but extending its support to the West.

With a history of providing invaluable international aid during times of crisis, Cuban doctors have once again delivered. Cuba has, thus far, dispatched 593 medical workers to 14 countries to help with their fight against Covid-19.

Vietnam, despite sharing a 1,100 kilometer border with China, has managed to significantly contain the virus. Faring better than some of the richest countries on the planet, Vietnam developed a test kit for Covid-19 immediately while also ensuring full lockdown took effect, providing free testing and treatment to those who needed it — along with free essentials to those quarantined.

Perhaps, then, what we can learn from this pandemic is just how Western hegemony — a world wherein the West has dominated politically and economically, supposedly setting global standards — is nearing its end.

This is not a matter of point scoring, but rather a case for self-reflection. If we are to take anything from the Coronavirus pandemic, it ought to be that such damaging, false perceptions of Western superiority, both in terms of economic system and cultural bias, must be left behind.

Holly Barrow is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service —


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