Whose Virus, Anyway?

There’s an illuminating passage in Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham which links the name “Spanish Flu” to the fact that – unlike in the combatant nations of World War I – “in neutral Spain […] coverage [of the spread of the deadly influenza] was unchecked.” I’ll delve into Wallace’s account of the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic on New York City in an upcoming post, but today I’m going to examine some recent accounts of the responses to COVID-19 in China and the US.

First, though, news broke today that researchers at Mount Sinai had confirmed that most of the strains of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in New York arrived here via Europe – not China or elsewhere in East Asia – and further, as Trevor Bradford’s work indicated had been the case in Seattle, that the virus circulated in New York for weeks – from at least mid-February, and perhaps as early as late January – before the first official case of community transmission was identified.

As in a last-minute high school essay – like which I hope the following does not read, as its structure was premeditated! – much of what follows will be in the form of quotations. I’ve previously linked to Mike Davis’ excellent piece Lessons From Wuhan, but will start by quoting from that piece once again. As Davis wrote:

In recognizing China’s achievements, however, we should avoid learning the wrong lesson: State capacity for decisive action in an emergency does not necessitate the suppression of democracy. Despite what many talking heads are claiming, putting a million Uighers in reeducation camps was not a precondition for quelling the coronavirus in Hubei, nor did the Big Brother practice of surveilling all the jaywalkers in Chinese cities and scoring their “social credit” prove decisive to the national quarantine.

Still, it’s inevitable that the right-wing leaders in the White House, Downing Street, Beit Aghion, and elsewhere will seize every opportunity, as they did with 9/11, to appropriate new authoritarian powers, exploiting the consequences of their own inaction and disastrous leadership to set more precedents for closing public spaces, banning assemblies, and even suspending elections.

I start with Davis both because I like his work personally (his Late Victorian Holocausts is a masterful, wrenching look at the intersection of global climate dynamics and the atrocities of European colonization that offers profound insights for the changed/rapidly changing world we occupy today – in the midst of accelerating global climate crisis – and presages prescient work like that of Christian Parenti in Tropic of Chaos) and because of his impeccable Marxist credentials. Few on the US left would label him a reactionary.

Sad to say, but from the spiraling Trade War of 2019, we’ve only seen escalation in the Sino-US tensions as the global impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic intensify. Now, as China has evidently brought its own outbreak under control, while things meanwhile spin wildly out of control in this country, a simultaneous ideological battle has been unfolding between the two countries that has seen mutual expulsions of journalists (and publications) and rather unhinged accusations originating from within the official state apparatuses of both countries. (As usual, Bill Bishop offers helpful insights into the latest from within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including around “Aggressive diplomacy and disinformation” as relates to the pandemic.)

Yet, in an experience somewhat novel for me, but that will no doubt be familiar to some of my elders – hearkening, as it does, back to the disorienting cross currents of Cold War propaganda – I find thinkers I respect diametrically opposed in their interpretations, as Great Power Politics threaten to divide not only the world, geopolitically, but – intellectually – our minds and spirits.

One thing, at least, everyone I respect seems to agree on, so we can dispense with that point: The pandemic response of the US President and his Administration has been an unqualified disaster. He has, among other things, surrounded himself with sycophants, kleptocrats, and frightening Right-wing ideologues; undermined science (in a way that will haunt this country for generations); sought to exploit the crisis to enrich the already-too-wealthy and to force through his suicidal deregulatory/extractivist agenda; and failed, utterly, to support state and local governments overwhelmed by the speed and ferocity of COVID-19’s spread.

Okay – happy we got that out of the way. With respect to China, however, it’s much harder to have clarity. I’ve just listened to Laurie Garrett’s long piece for the New Republic, Grim Reapers (which is, itself, essentially a combination of two of her previous articles for Foreign Policy – Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Coronavirus Response and How China’s Incompetence Endangered the World – from late January and mid-February respectively, updated to reflect the radical deterioration of the situation in the US and the significant improvement in the situation in China in the interim). As my gloss would suggest, our President and China’s Prime Minister are the Reapers in question in Garrett’s view, but this is where things start to get muddy.

On the one hand, Garrett writes, in the latter of her Foreign Policy pieces:

Unfortunately, China is showing how all this can go wrong, making a crisis into a catastrophe. Xi’s government has provided the world with reams of data, but their credibility, or lack thereof, is inextricably bound to the CCP’s methods of governance, censorship, intimidation, and toadyism. The rest of the world is left to prognosticate and prepare without really knowing what havoc the coronavirus enemy is capable of wreaking.

On the other, Vijay Prashad (with two co-authors) writes for The People’s Dispatch:

Whether it is the New York Times or Marco Rubio, there is an urgency to conclude that China’s government and Chinese society are to blame for the global pandemic, and that their failures not only compromised the WHO but caused the pandemic. Facts become irrelevant. What we have shown in this report is that there was neither willful suppression of the facts nor was there a fear from local officials to report to Beijing; nor indeed was the system broken. The coronavirus epidemic was mysterious and complex, and the Chinese doctors and authorities hastily learned what was going on and then made—based on the facts available—rational decisions.

From a media/information standpoint, China is something of a black box, while sitting here in the US as I do, I find myself enveloped in the deafening noise of mis- and dis-information and the de facto state propaganda of our corporate media. It’s a problem of parallax and there is no neutral position, but in acknowledging – with the late and much-missed Howard Zinn –the impossibility of neutrality, and looking to stand for something in life – even something as slippery as ideals like liberty, justice, and compassion – one looks for some solid ground on which to stand.

Who is Laurie Garrett? An accomplished and incisive science journalist who has spent most of her career writing about infectious disease and, for some time, was a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, which some on the left might find disqualifying as a sign of her attachment to the security state.

And Vijay Prashad? A prolific and courageous Marxist historian and internationalist political thinker of undeniable humanity and political commitment who left a tenured position at Trinity College in Connecticut to found Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, in my view, one of the most important intellectual outfits active in the world today.

It would be nice if they could simply agree on things, but, obviously, they do not. Perhaps I’d been well-propagandized, myself, here in this echo chamber, but I’d come to feel confident that China had badly mishandled its response to the initial outbreak of what, then, was simply a novel coronavirus of unknown origin. But Qiao – a collective of Chinese leftists living in the diaspora – writes, in After the West: China’s Internationalist Solidarity in the Age of Coronavirus:

Where China’s mass production of masks, test kits, and ventilators, construction of emergency hospitals, universal testing and treatment, and regional coordination of food production and distribution speaks to the power and dynamism of a socialist market economy, the U.S. response is emblematic of a system in which decades of neoliberalism have utterly neutered the state’s ability to meet the needs of the people without relying on the cooperation of individual corporate actors. Where China marshalled state-owned enterprises and confiscated private capital to meet the production needs of the pandemic, the Trump Administration’s coronavirus response has been a who’s who of the corporate class. A March 13 press conference saw Trump flanked by the CEOs of WalMart, CVS, and Target, who pledged vague support to continue operating stores and provide parking lot space for drive-through testing sites. Federal and state governments have failed to provide adequate medical supplies for hospitals, leaving hospital staff haggling with private sellers price-gouging protective masks and facing a proprietary monopoly banning third-party repairs on life saving ventilators and other medical equipment.


But the spectacular contrast between the Chinese and American political and economic systems is made even more clear in the realm of global geopolitics, where out of this global pandemic has emerged the multilateral world presaged by the Munich Security Conference’s requiem for the American Century. Where Mike Pompeo praised a triumphant neoliberal ideology of “individual freedom [and] free enterprise,” this very Western consensus on neoliberal austerity has left Western governments politically subservient to the very industries they now beg to work in the public interest to meet the needs of this crisis. Lacking the state-owned enterprises that spearheaded China’s crisis response, the U.S., for instance, has turned to prison labor and Korean War-era war powers which require private manufacturers to prioritize government orders for medical supplies—making clear that carceral and military logics are the last recourse of a state emaciated by the tenets of neoliberalism.

And further:

Turned inwards by crisis, the United States and EU have abdicated even the pretension of leadership over the liberal world order: leaving nations across the world turning increasingly towards China for support.

And further still:

Simply put, socialism is beating this pandemic where capitalism has failed.

Before triumphantly concluding:

The American recourse to xenophobia, nationalism, and Cold War antagonisms attempts to foreclose the revolutionary potential of this crisis, in which the fundamental incompatibility between capitalism and public health is becoming clearer to millions every day. Where a Cold War framework insists that Chinese “authoritarianism” has now contaminated the West, we must insist on the real roots of a [crisis] which has [been] manufactured by decades of neoliberal austerity which has left Western powers with emaciated health infrastructures unprepared to meet the needs of a pandemic. Cold War visions of zero-sum geopolitics no longer hold in a global pandemic that demands internationalist solidarity. Yet the ruling class has found an easy recourse in this time of crisis to simplistic ideological binaries of East vs. West, U.S. vs. China. As one pundit put it in Foreign Policy just this week: “China cannot be allowed to win.” This is a vision of the world antithetical to Wang Yi’s call to “to see our shared planet as a community for all.” America’s zero-sum framing reflects the fact that hegemony, power, and violence have always been core to the project of the West—one founded in the structures of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. For too many, the West was not just a fairy tale, but a nightmare. As the world comes together to heal from this pandemic, we might all finally awake from the nightmare of neoliberalism and colonialism and realize the dream of another world.

Among Qiao’s stated goals are to “challenge the U.S. rising aggression towards the People’s Republic of China and to be a bridge between the U.S. left, particularly the Chinese diaspora left, and China’s rich Marxist, anti-imperialist historical and contemporary political work and thought”; “to build a movement of leftists determined to push back against the U.S.’s increasing aggression against the China [sic] and to critically consider the current role of China and socialism with Chinese characteristics in contemporary geopolitics”; and “to disrupt Western misinformation and propaganda and to affirm the basic humanity of Chinese people.”

I quote at length here not so much to give full credence to a perspective that unabashedly takes a very positive view of “socialism with Chinese characteristics in contemporary geopolitics,” but to shed light on – or at least point to – a realm of discursive conflict that will likely only become hazier and harder to make sense of in coming years, especially given that – their stance on the CCP aside – Qiao’s critiques of US policy – including of US aggression against China – and of US pandemic response are all objectively accurate.

Perhaps this Collective seems too brazenly partisan for the taste of some readers in the US – though we should be mindful of how our own media consumption shapes our sense of the shape of the world – but closer to home, we can look to FAIR – a “national media watch group” the work of which I’ve admired for years – which in articles entitled Coronavirus Alarm Blends Yellow Peril and Red Scare and You Don’t Need to Believe China About China’s Coronavirus Success (from March 6th and April 2nd, respectively) makes much the same case about US corporate media’s anti-China bias and misrepresentations – approaching or tantamount to falsehoods – of the account of the early day’s of the disease’s spread in and around Wuhan. On the subject of whistleblowers, China’s transparency about the nature of the disease and the extent of its spread, and other key issues, FAIR’s accounts are much closer to Prashad’s or that of the Qiao Collective, than that of Laurie Garrett, and yet of all the individuals and entities in question, I’m most inclined to trust Garrett’s grasp of the facts here, though least inclined to relate to her politics.

A conundrum which I won’t attempt to resolve, lacking as I do the knowledge and information so to do myself, but circling back before I end this long post to what I wrote yesterday about the primaries in Wisconsin, they were, of course, not just “idiocy” just like the War on Iraq was not just “a mistake”; in searching for truly trustworthy media, I often circle back to The Intercept these days – though even First Look Media, The Intercept’s parent company, was founded by a billionaire: Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay – and I encourage you to listen to the latest episode – Pandemic Racism: The Wisconsin Primary, Disenfranchisement, and the Cost of Life – of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted (from which the text at bottom is copied directly).

If some things are uncertain, one thing is not. Republicans don’t care about the lives of Democratic voters any more than they care about the lives of most of the people in this country, and they definitely don’t care about Black people. Those of us who stand against authoritarianisms of all stripe may sometimes find ourselves befuddled by the layers of uncertainty that enshroud us, like mummies, in this existence, but beneath those layers meant to blind and deceive us, we go on living, and in certain moments – like the one I hope will roar to life in the wake of this pandemic – threaten to break all our binds and breathe free.

If you or someone you know needs emotional support or is contemplating suicide, resources include the Crisis Text Line, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Trevor Project, or the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

Postscript: I’ve neglected to mention intelligence agencies above, but they are always lurking in the background. In expelling each other’s journalists, both the United States and China have accused reporters of being spies; we know that US intelligence agencies (and Senator Richard Burr, among others) understood the threat posed by this novel coronavirus as early as January; and the New York Times has relied on CIA claims in recent reportage questioning the validity of Chinese COVID-19 data. The escalating diplomatic dust-up over blame for and origins of the spread of the virus is no doubt just the public face of a multifaceted conflict – the tip of this particular iceberg (a metaphor we may sadly have to retire in coming decades), and – taking for a moment a broader view – we know that from the Arab Spring overall, to the popular uprising in Syria, to the popular movement in defense of Democracy in Hong Kong, to name just a few examples, there have been both accusations and evidence that US intelligence agencies have manipulated authentic popular anger (or attempted to) in pursuit of ends altogether different from those of the popular movements in question.

Finally, ex post facto, here’s Noam Chomsky from today’s Democracy Now! (the above post was written yesterday, April 9th):

[The President] is desperately seeking some scapegoat that he can blame for his astonishing failures and incompetence. The most recent one is the World Health Organization, the China bashing. Somebody else is responsible.

But it’s simply — the facts are very clear. China very quickly informed the World Health Organization last December that they were finding patients with pneumonia-like symptoms with unknown etiology. Didn’t know what it was. About a week later, January 7th, they made public the fact to the World Health Organization, the general scientific community in the world, that Chinese scientists had found out what the source was: a coronavirus resembling the SARS virus. They had identified the sequence, the genome. They were providing the information to the world.

U.S. intelligence was well aware of it. They spent January and February trying to get somebody in the White House to pay attention to the fact that there’s a major pandemic. Just nobody could listen. [The President] was off playing golf or maybe listening — checking his TV ratings. Yesterday, we learned that one very high-level official, very close to the administration, Peter Navarro, in late January had sent a very strong message to the White House saying this is a real danger. But even he couldn’t break through.

My best take on all this at the moment is that while many in the US have overplayed Chinese malfeasance for their own cynical political reasons, some on the left – perhaps even Chomsky included here – are downplaying the granular details of how the initial weeks of the outbreak were handled in Wuhan; that is, in countering the false claims that have been widely propagated, including in the US corporate media, regarding China’s interactions with the WHO, etc., prominent left intellectuals who are not infectious disease experts may be papering over significant missteps – up to and including distortion of data and outright lying – that were happening in Wuhan in January even as the Chinese Government was simultaneously working with the WHO and others to address the novel and fast-moving crisis.

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