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The origins of COVID-19 and the impact of harmful stereotypes

By Christian Lowry, May 11, 2021—

The recent coronavirus pandemic has been a test of human society in more ways than one. At the time of writing, 153 million people have contracted COVID-19 globally, of whom 3.2 million have died. Recent studies have also established that a large minority of people with COVID-19 may fall victim to long-lasting mental and physical disabilities, or “long COVID,” as a result of infection. In addition to causing incalculable misery and highlighting the many contradictions in our political and economic system, COVID-19 has simultaneously exposed the best and worst extracts of human nature. 

In the midst of fear, sickness and heartbreak, most people have shown a willingness to abide by necessary restrictions for the sake of themselves and others. Unfortunately, a significant number have also lashed out at others, refusing to change their behaviour and instead seeking security in blame — no matter how unhinged their accusations become. Arguably, the most identifiable scapegoat of the entire pandemic has been the People’s Republic of China, where COVID-19 first emerged on a mass scale, along with the many Chinese people who are deemed guilty by association. 

The examples of scapegoating are endless. Throughout 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump referred to COVID-19 in openly racist terms, such as the “Chinese virus” and the “kung flu,” explaining, “Because it comes from China. That’s why. I want to be accurate.” After Trump contracted COVID-19 last October, DeAnna Lorraine, a Republican congressional candidate, rhetorically asked her 400,000 Twitter followers, “Could Trump catching COVID-19 technically be viewed as an assassination attempt on our President by the Chinese?” U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, who has also defended slavery and supported banning the entry of Chinese international students, asserted that China deliberately released the novel coronavirus to weaken the global power of the United States. On April 10, 2020, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation announced that it would add all deaths from COVID-19 to its official tally of people killed by communist governments, an obvious criticism of China. On Dec. 2, 2020, the American political commentator Tucker Carlson claimed on Fox News that China was guilty of “criminal negligence” and “mass murder.” In May 2020, a poll by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation of 1,382 Americans indicated that 69 per cent blamed China for the pandemic, and 71 per cent supported international penalties on China, including sanctions, tariffs and banning travel by its officials. 

Such an endless barrage of propaganda has harmful effects on people. It turns otherwise good people into suspicious hatemongers who jump at shadows and subject their perfectly normal neighbours to invasive scrutiny. From January 2020 through March 2021, 1,150 hate crimes against Asian Canadians were reported, nearly half of which occurred in the first three months of 2021. Over roughly the same period, 3,795 “hateful incidents” were recorded in the United States. Additionally, the well-publicized scapegoating of China fueled the unsubstantiated claims of anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine movements that the institution of basic public health measures will lead to communist tyranny in Western countries.

That aside, the evidence that China was the first country to experience COVID-19 is patchy and incomplete at best. The truth of the claim ends at the fact that China, by sheer coincidence, was the first country in which the novel coronavirus emerged as a human-transmissible disease. Many have blamed the emergence of the virus on the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan City. However, contact-tracing subsequently revealed that 13 of the 41 initially hospitalized patients had no contact with the market where the virus allegedly emerged, including the first patient. There were also isolated cases of COVID-19 in which the patients were exposed between Nov. 17 and Dec. 1, 2019 and had no connection whatsoever with the market’s products. Cases dating to October 2019 were identified after the fact in Italy, as well as others in the Western United States, that December. Crucially, this means that the novel coronavirus first became transmissible outside of China. 

Many Westerners have relied on rabid Sinophobia instead of rational analysis, blaming China for allegedly unleashing COVID-19 while simultaneously denying the severity of the disease. The fact that China was the first victim of the pandemic does not absolve the hawkish governments of Western countries for their failure to lastingly defeat COVID-19 more than a year after China successfully did. If anything, China’s early experience with the coronavirus makes its public health achievements all the more incredible.

The available evidence shows that China was extremely active and dynamic in combating COVID-19 as it emerged. It made no sense to deliberately withhold information about the pandemic from the international community, since the severity of the outbreak would have eventually become obvious upon worsening. On Dec. 30, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported that isolated cases of “atypical pneumonia” were appearing in the city’s hospitals. On Dec. 31, 2019, when 27 cases had been identified, Beijing informed the World Health Organization’s China Country Office about recent cases of a “pneumonia of unknown etiology” in Wuhan City. On Jan. 1, 2020, the market that apparently generated many of the first cases was shut down by the authorities. On Jan. 11, 2020, Chinese researchers published the newfound coronavirus’ genetic sequence to the open-access scholarly websites virological.org and GenBank, enabling scholarly researchers around the world to begin their own investigations. At that time, only one death had been reported and no cases had been reported outside of China. 

No new cases were detected by the Chinese authorities between Jan. 1 and Jan. 17, 2020, when confirmed cases still numbered in the lower hundreds and systematic human-to-human transmission was only determined on Jan. 19 when two confirmed cases were found across the country in Guangdong. On Jan. 25, 2020, Lunar New Year celebrations were cancelled, but the Chinese government extended the duration of the holiday to Feb. 9 to prevent a second trip by potentially sick people. By 9 p.m. CST on Jan. 25, 30 of 31 Chinese provinces declared Level 1 public health alerts, with the exception of Tibet, where no cases had been identified.

On Feb. 11, 2020, the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finished collecting data on 72,000 cases of COVID-19 and the final study was published on Feb. 28. Another joint study conducted by Chinese health personnel and the World Health Organization analyzed 56,000 cases and was also published on Feb. 28. Much of our early knowledge about COVID-19 — including its asymptomatic transmission, unique mortality for the elderly and lethality for people suffering from pre-existing conditions such as cancer, respiratory disease and diabetes — comes from these early studies. On Feb. 16, 2020, CNN reported that 780 million people, or half of China’s population, was subject to travel restrictions of some kind. During January and February 2020, China imported 2 billion face masks, and daily domestic production of masks rose to 100 million per day by March 2. 

By all accounts, the early quarantines worked — at least on the domestic front. As of Jan. 22, 2020, the Government Stringency Index, which measures the coronavirus policy responses of different countries through indicators such as workplace closures, public event cancellations, stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions and public gathering bans, gave China a score of 26.39, compared to an average figure of 7.94 for other countries — a score of 0 indicates no policy response, while 100 indicates the most intensive policy response. By March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, the respective scores had changed to 81.02 for China and an average of 21.93 for the 166 other countries that reported data. As of Feb. 26, 2020, by which time a total of 78,191 cases had been detected, 83 per cent of China’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 were limited to Hubei Province, which contains four per cent of the country’s population. China has 18.47 per cent of the world’s population but only 0.06 per cent of its cumulative confirmed cases. Of the 102,549 confirmed cases recorded between the start of the pandemic on Jan. 22, 2020 and May 3, 2021, 80.2 per cent occurred by March 31, 2020, indicating a relatively successful containment.

To my knowledge, no perfect alternative exists that could have been followed by Chinese authorities. If China fell short, then how much more has the rest of the world done so in replicating Chinese containment after having a year and a half to do so? Conspicuously, throughout January and February of 2020, President Trump praised the Chinese government’s handling of the emerging virus over a dozen times. Although he changed his tune when his own country became the center of the pandemic a month later — no further praise would be given to a country whose successful containment of the coronavirus highlighted his own country’s failures.

It is hard to conceive what more the Chinese government could have done to contain COVID-19. Within a few weeks of discovering a new strain of coronavirus, Beijing had to uncover most of the basic facts about the virus that we take for granted while also curbing its domestic spread. The task was made more difficult by the estimated 3 billion trips made on mainland China during the forty-day festivities of Lunar New Year, the fact that the novel coronavirus emerged during flu season and the unavoidable lack of testing kits for a newly-discovered virus. 

The government has received scathing criticism about its muzzling of doctors who tried to expose the catastrophe in December 2019, such as Li Wenliang. However, allowing unrestricted conservation about an emerging crisis would likely have inspired mass panic and disorder, further complicating an already disadvantaged response by the authorities. Moreover, such civil liberties can only be exercised by living people — any government has an obligation to preserve the lives of the wider population over the nonessential preferences of an individual. These criticisms highlight a pattern in which China is presumed guilty until proven innocent. If it can be proven that China successfully eliminated COVID-19 within its borders, it is derided as a dystopian police state. If China did not perfectly stop COVID-19, then it is held responsible for every aspect of the pandemic. Such rhetoric stigmatizes successful models of public policy in the midst of a destructive pandemic and has little place in discussions over substantive paths out of it.

In addition to its exemplary leadership in combating the spread of coronavirus at home, China has been at the forefront of the international effort to lift the resulting pandemic. Between March and December 2020, China exported 224 billion face masks to different countries, amounting to 40 per person in the world outside the country. In a world where the 27 wealthiest countries have 10.5 per cent of the population but 35.9 per cent of its COVID-19 vaccine doses, China has stepped forward to fill the gap. As of March 1, 2021, Beijing has made agreements to supply half a billion doses to 53 countries, overwhelmingly located in the Global South. This figure is even more than it has provided domestically.

All of these developments cast doubt on the propagandistic assertion that COVID-19 is a problem that can be squarely blamed on China. Such misinformation places millions of lives at stake as people and countries scramble to make sense of the cataclysm. In retrospect, it is obvious that the world is greatly indebted to China for information, supplies and exemplary policies regarding suppression of COVID-19. Although it is easy to resort to misinformed opinions about our society’s problems, the mature and effective approach will critically examine our own country and customs, using the best examples available without regard for their origin.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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