The Virus of Fear

The novel coronavirus, now called SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19 is the illness it causes) was first identified in Wuhan, China, on late December 2019. Since then it has spread to every continent except Antarctica. The mortality rate appears to be higher than that of the seasonal flu in the northern hemisphere, but much depends on the available healthcare system, as well as a person’s age, and underlying health conditions.

Scientists aren’t certain where the virus originated, though they know that coronaviruses (which also include SARS and MERS) are passed between animals and humans. Research comparing the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 with a viral database suggests it originated in bats. Since no bats were sold at the seafood market in Wuhan at the disease’s epicenter, researchers suggest an intermediate animal, possibly the pangolin (an endangered mammal) is responsible for the transmission to humans. There are currently no treatments for the disease, but labs are working on various types of treatments, including a vaccine.

The extreme measures taken by some governments- closing of borders, cancelling flights, shutting down schools, shops and restaurants- are understandable. But I cannot help wondering whether, in this case, the treatment may sometimes be worse than the disease. A narrowly nationalistic outlook (let’s protect our people) may endanger others elsewhere. Many poor, even in the rich world, live on daily wages. For many poor countries that depend heavily on tourism or the foreign labour market, a slowing of the economy will spell the collapse of their already fragile health systems, resulting in greater suffering and deaths not only from COVID-19. Surely, what is required is a globally co-ordinated response. And, in the USA, I can confidently predict that tens of thousands of people will die of gun-related random acts of violence this year. So why not take equally drastic measures to combat what many mental health specialists, teachers and parents have identified as a public health issue of epidemic proportions?

This leads me to highlight a pandemic that is far more dangerous, in the long term, than COVID-19. It is the pandemic of racism and xenophobia that seems to be spreading at an alarming rate and has been responsible for the election of men like Trump, Putin, Johnson, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Modi, Rajapakse and others into positions of power. Much of this is fuelled by fear. COVID-19 has also brought out this fear, at the same time as others have worked tirelessly to care for victims and curtail its spread. In London, a Singaporean Chinese man was assaulted on the street and Chinese shops and restaurants boycotted. In Nairobi, even before the first case was reported, angry crowds attacked Chinese workers. Several incidents of this nature have happened elsewhere.

South Korea has been held up as a model of how countries should be responding to the crisis. But, alas, this is not transferrable to poorer nations. Instead of closing its border to China, the government employed widespread free testing, including drive-through test sites. Technology has aided the tracing of contacts, using GPS tracking. Rather than creating a total lockdown, they opted for physical distancing measures targeting transmission hot spots.

A South Korean friend of mine wrote to me recently:

“The cult called Shincheonji (meaning new heaven and earth) has been the epicenter of the epidemic. They have been using lies and deception in their outreach, and because of their secretive approaches, they didn’t want to be tracked down by the public health authorities which made the whole response extremely difficult. This bizarre case shows public responsibility of a religion. Several churches also became centres of virus infection on a smaller scale, and each case provoked public criticism. Hope we can learn our responsibility in the society through these cases.”

If indeed (and it is still a big “if”) the virus originated from close animal-human contact in public markets like in Wuhan, then it puts paid to the cultural relativist view that one must never challenge the cultural practices (including diets and dress styles) of others. (In any case, such an argument is impossible to practice consistently and is often self-serving).

Cultures and religious traditions must be open to criticism, especially when they endanger public goods. But this includes the intensive meat-eating culture of the USA which is promoted among the urban middle-classes of the global South and which involves not only the inhumane treatment of cattle and poultry, but massive rises in greenhouse emissions which also take their death toll on vulnerable populations.

Europe is currently the epicentre of COVID-19. European colonists, sailors and soldiers once spread European diseases to the peoples of South America and the South Pacific. And the misnamed “Spanish ’flu” of 1918-19 which originated in a military hospital in France was carried by debilitated French and British soldiers returning to their imperial territories. Fatality figures for that terrible pandemic range from 50 million to 100 million. We are nowhere near that with COVID-19.

All this should remind is that we belong to one world, and our destinies are bound up with one other. We cannot afford to think in narrow, nationalist categories that only generate fear of those who are different to us. If what happens in a market in China can affect us all, so does what happens in an American university laboratory or a London corporate board room.

Science cannot provide the antidote to fear, although it can go a long way towards dispelling lies and misinformation. But it’s “love that casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally and that our worth as human beings does not rest on our colour, gender, age or achievements.

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