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Book review A perverse feeding of people’s worst fears

Baseless supposition, fake news and suspicion have infected our minds just as perniciously as Covid has our bodies. Both will have to overcome if humankind is to be returned to sanity, writes MAJORIE MAYO

‘I Know Who Caused Covid-19’: Pandemics and Xenophobia
by Zhou Xun and Sander Gilman
Reaktion Books, £16

THE Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted so many tensions, exacerbating existing inequalities on a global scale.

And Covid-19 has exacerbated people’s fears in parallel, offering fertile ground for those far-right politicians who have been minded to fan popular prejudices and stereotypes.  

So this book is a timely contribution to contemporary debates about racism and xenophobia, and how to understand them in order to combat them more effectively in the context of this pandemic.

I Know Who Caused Covid-19 focuses upon four groups who have been blamed for spreading the Covid-19 virus.

These are as follows: the residents of Wuhan and other groups in China, ultra-orthodox Jewish groups in the US, Britain and Israel, African-Americans in US and BAME communities in Britain and white right-wing groups in US and Europe.  

The case studies are set within their historical contexts, beginning with an overview of xenophobia in response to pandemics in earlier times — blame “The Other” in times of stress and fear.

And who better to blame than those who have been scapegoated in the past?

While the authors are critical of national governments, including the Chinese government, they are also scathing about international stereotyping — the view that eating bats and other “exotic” wildlife is disgusting, for example, views held in cultures where it is considered acceptable to eat live oysters and to kill game for sport.  

But negative stereotyping has serious effects, with increasing hate crimes against Chinese and other Asians in the US and elsewhere, in response to “China blaming” for the spread of Covid-19.

The case studies take account of the complexities involved. Those most at risk from Covid-19 have included those who have also been most disadvantaged, including those most disadvantaged in terms of their access to health and social care.

But these groups may also be less likely to opt for vaccination. Is this because of previous memories of abuse, such as the scandalous abuse of African-American men in relation to the treatment of syphilis in the US, the notorious Tuskegee Study, for instance?

Is this because they have had less access to healthcare in any case? Or is this due to some of the other ways in which racism fuels health inequalities — or what?

Meanwhile Trump, with his macho positioning on Covid-19, has enjoyed support from within African-American communities and ultra-orthodox communities as well as from white Americans.

Trump has acted as a beacon for resistance to lockdowns in fact, described as being anti-vaccine, anti-public health, anti-science, anti-masks and anti-state authority.

His supporters have included those with beliefs in bizarre conspiracy theories, blaming the Chinese, illegal immigrants, Jewish “plutocrats” and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement — although Trump himself has played both sides of the anti-vax argument, telling people that he was responsible for the development of the “beautiful vaccine” when this suited him.

His emphasis on individual freedom has been powerful politically, raising key questions about the limits on individual freedom and the importance of respect for the rights of others which the authors go on to explore.

Words can be very emotive, as subsequent chapters go on to consider in further detail too, generating fear and blame, unleashing moral panics in response. It is not just about the disease in question itself, but about public perceptions and anxieties.

As the authors explain at the outset, this book was written, rewritten and rethought at the height of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, concluding in January 2021 (with minor updates up to April 2021 when the book went to press).

Although this limits the scope for considering subsequent developments, the book provides a range of evidence on the backstories involved, the histories of pandemics and reactions to them in earlier times.

There is a wealth of detail, covering a wide range of materials. The essential arguments could probably have been put forward convincingly with less, in fact.

But the complexities of these stories do need to be understood. Experiences can be remembered and/or repressed in different ways — with only too immediate effects.

As the authors conclude, this is about what leads people to claim that “I know who caused Covid-19- they did.” And then what?

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