Coronavirus a common foe the global village must fight together

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2020/2/6 16:28:44

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday said that only solidarity and cooperation among all countries will defeat the coronavirus outbreak. File photo: Xinhua

In 1985, at the peak of the Cold War, then US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had a brief discussion during a summit in Geneva. The content was kept secret until 2009 when Gorbachev spoke of their conversation in an interview with American TV television journalist Charlie Rose. The two leaders agreed during the summit that if aliens invaded the Earth the two superpowers would stop confronting each other and fight the threat together. 

A similar scenario was played out in Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin's 2000 novel The Wandering Earth, in which a United Earth Government of nations was formed to save the planet that was about to be swallowed by the sun.

There is no imminent risk of an alien invasion or a cosmic threat that might terminate the existence of the Earth as far as I know. But the novel coronavirus that originated from Wuhan and is now spreading in and outside of China seems like a drill to test whether we humans are able to put aside our differences when facing a common threat. It turns out that solidarity is a tough challenge.

Outside of China, the virus is dubbed, not without ulterior motive, the "Wuhan virus" or "China virus" by some Westerners, despite its scientific moniker "2019-nCoV" or the often-used reference "novel coronavirus." Some Chinese people were insulted by bad taste jokes, such as: "Hi, you dropped something, your virus." Some Chinese people in the US and European countries have been verbally or physically attacked by hotheaded strangers simply because they were wearing masks. 

Some Western media outlets superimposed images of a virus seen under a microscope onto China's national flag in their not-so-clever graphic designs. As I was writing this piece on Wednesday, a petition initiated by overseas Chinese demanding the Australian tabloids Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph apologize - the former for its reference to "Chinese virus" in a subtitle under a headline, and the latter for highlighting the words "China kids stay home" in a headline. The petition has already gathered close to 70,000 signatures. 

Inside China, such skewed perspectives are not absent. In the early days of the lockdown of Wuhan, people from the city who were working or traveling elsewhere in the country became targets of internet trolls, who blamed them for spreading the virus. Absurd posts accusing the US of having planted the virus in China can also be spotted on WeChat. 

This should not be surprising. The epidemic is a real-life challenge to humanity in the sense that prevention involves isolation and quarantine. When cities are locked down, foreign nationals are evacuated from Wuhan, travel bans are imposed, and flights are canceled, close-minded attitudes are bound to come to the fore.

The hullabaloo has also unmistakably reflected mankind's tendency to see the world through past ideological and tribalist prisms. In her book Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag highlighted the effects of such a mind-set on contagious disease. 

"The names for syphilis, when it began its epidemic sweep through Europe in the last decade of the fifteenth century, are an exemplary illustration of the need to make a dreaded disease foreign," she wrote. "It was the 'French pox' to the English, morbus Germanicus to the Parisians, the Naples sickness to the Florentines, the Chinese disease to the Japanese. But what may seem like a joke about the inevitability of chauvinism reveals a more important truth: that there is a link between imagining disease and imagining foreignness."

So, it is not easy to find much positive behavior when people are suddenly confronted with an epidemic. But it doesn't mean the picture is completely dark. On TikTok, I watched a British young man's video in which he called for the audience to realize that the coronavirus outbreak is not a Chinese issue, but a world issue. And in a Chinese language newspaper in New York, I read a story about the ordeal of a Chinese couple who rushed back to the US from their wedding in China in order to beat the travel ban that prohibits people who have recently visited China from entering the US. They said they now understand how people from Muslim countries on the US travel ban feel. These are small sparks carrying hope. 

In her book, Songtag opposes offering meaning to a disease by assigning it metaphors. But I think this coronavirus outbreak is a perfect metaphor that visualizes the essence of human society.

We can discriminate against one another, but the virus never will. No boundary can stop it from interrupting the regular life of all of us. We were a village. Then, we were not. But in the end, whether you like it or not, the virus reminds us that we are indeed a global community.

The author is a New York-based journalist and Alicia Patterson fellow.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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