Over the last week or so it seems that the British press has fluctuated between hysteria about China’s technology viruses plaguing the internet, or paranoia about Chinese biological viruses infecting our health.

The recent outbreak of coronavirus in the central city of Wuhan has created something resembling mass hysteria in the newsrooms of Western broadcast journalism and it has become a morbid daily sport to report on the steady increase in the numbers of deaths. The Guardian quoted a public health academic, Prof Neil Ferguson claiming arbitrarily that “there were 100,000 affected by the virus even though there are only 2,000 confirmed cases so far”; a Harvard University epidemiologist tweeted that the new coronavirus is “thermonuclear pandemic level bad“; while CNN suggested that it is all part of a covert Chinese bioweapons program. As the known death toll reaches 150, coronavirus has rapidly become – for the media at least – the new Yellow Peril.

With so much hype around the recent outbreak of coronavirus in central China – undoubtedly a potentially terrible and worrying situation – this article explores some of the myths and realities. For example, Devi Sridhar, chair in global public health at the University of Edinburgh, says: “you’re probably more likely to be catching flu than you are to be getting coronavirus”. And to put it in perspective, the common flu kills around 35,000 people a year globally.

The coronavirus was first notified to the World Health Organisation on 31st December 2019 as an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan City, Hubei Province and by 7th January 2020 the Chinese authorities confirmed that they had identified a new strain of virus and they were monitoring the situation. The transmission process is still not known, and a huge amount of medical research is invested in finding out. That hasn’t stopped “scientists” revealing that London is the city in Europe most “at risk” of seeing cases of coronavirus even though no-one has yet been tested positive for the virus anywhere in the UK.

In 2002, a similar coronavirus Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) originated in Guangdong Province, eventually infecting around 8,000 people and killing approximately 800 after spreading to around 37 countries. This was under the liberal leadership of Hu Jintao who was roundly criticised for responding slowly to the crisis. His successor, the less-than-liberal Xi Jinping has been much more appreciated for his hard-line response. The Director-General of the World Health Organization said that response showcased “China’s speed, China’s scale, and China’s efficiency…This is the advantage of China’s system, worthy for other countries to learn from.”

One of the much-admired aspects of China’s can-do authoritarianism is the example of its construction of a 10,000-bed hospital in just six days. The uncritical awe that this announcement has engendered belies the reality that this will be an emergency field hospital. Of course it’s impossible to build a pukka hospital in 6-days. I am happy to proved otherwise but it seems that what is really being developed is the kind of temporary, emergency facility typically built in war or disaster zones. Undoubtedly the mobilisation and speed of the construction workers is impressive, especially during Spring Festival, but in 2002 the authorities built a similar structure in Beijing to deal with the SARS outbreak. That Xiaotangshan “hospital” was demolished immediately afterwards because it was not able to function as a conventional hospital. Too many otherwise sensible voices have been far too indulgent of the hype around China’s construction industry.

The other hype around the lessons of the coronavirus health panic is the symbolism that this is a disaster that is transboundary in nature and thus requiring a supranational response. Viruses have the potential to be global in scale, respecting no border. It is a disaster for our time, where people themselves become symptomatic of the environmental threat. Their spread occurring during Chinese Spring Festival holiday when the world experiences the biggest migration in human history.

The Observer notes that “Global challenges like these will test to destruction the ability of transnational institutions such as the WHO, the EU and the World Trade Organization to chivvy along global coordination. They serve as a grave warning to those who would bury their heads in isolationism.” Indeed, it really seems to irritate Wester commentators that China tends to want to deal with its own problems without recourse to international oversight.

Christopher Fraying’s 2014 book on The Yellow Peril explores the historic and contemporary force of anti-Chinese propaganda. He quotes Sax Rohmer, the author of the caricature Fu Manchu novels, saying: “I made my name on China, because I know nothing about the Chinese!”. Indeed, China is still seen as an inscrutable “other” (a position not helped by revelling in its own enigmatic secrecy). But maybe, instead of leaping to speculative judgement, we – ourselves in the West – ought to encourage meaningful engagement and a greater willingness to open up to the world in order to get know it a little better. Maybe then, it’ll all become a little less scary.



Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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