By Tom Fowdy Source:Global Times
An ambulance sits outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Monday. Photo: AFP
Over the past few weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated across Western countries with blistering speed. As of the start of April, there are over 189,000 cases in the US, with the European continent also suffering hefty growth rates, especially in Italy and Spain. The crisis has prompted a growing level of heated rhetoric in some circles suggesting China should now “atone” or “pay a price” for the virus and the economic damage it will inflict on these countries.
Most graphically, an anonymous figure in the British government says that there ought to be a “reckoning” for Beijing once the crisis comes to an end. Solutions proposed have ranged from sanctions, to boycotts, to outright decoupling of societies and descending into nationalist indignation and finger pointing.
The argument for this is that China has not been transparent enough in dealing with the virus, and underreported the scale of the epidemic and therefore exacerbated its spread catching Western countries “off guard.” This was the line with what US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mouthed over the past few weeks.
Their response should serve as a template for an unreasonable argument, as it epitomized the politics of privilege and deflection. Some Western countries are effectively trying to offload its own governance failures onto China, making it a convenient international scapegoat. In doing so, they are making priori assumptions that China could not have been legitimately successful in handling the virus, and then in turn used this to downplay their own inability to prepare for epidemic, saying Beijing could not be trusted.
For many decades, the West has lived in a state of privilege. Not since World War II has the majority of its population experienced any kind of serious hardship, instability or detrimental chaos that has regularly afflicted the developing world and transformed life into a struggle for survival itself. Developed countries have not faced internal conflicts, poverty, and famine nor disease outbreaks. As a result, this has ingrained a perception within the Western psyche that relative security, prosperity and order constitute as benign “normality” in contrast to the rest of the world, which does not have such privileges.
People in the West are inclined to believe that disease outbreaks are something that only happens in “foreign,” “oriental” and “exotic” countries that don’t share the so-called civilized and superior Western way of life. The idea that something like that could happen in privileged country is inconceivable and an injustice, and someone or some country must be held accountable.
As a result of these underlying beliefs, Western governments did not take the COVID-19 outbreak seriously. They observed it for two months, yet did little to prepare. An example of this on a political level is the behavior of the Trump administration, which imposed massive spending cuts on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, failed to acquire testing infrastructure on time, downplayed multiple intelligence reports warning of a potential pandemic and repeatedly sought to dismiss it out of hand for the sake of the country’s economy.
On a social level, the Western public did not respond well either. Few in Europe have worn masks and few were willing to observe adequate social distancing recommendations until they were forced to, by which point the outbreak was already serious. Yet as it hits hard, suddenly these countries want to absolve themselves of responsibility and point fingers at Beijing. Given the overwhelming criticism of China’s governance structure from these same countries, it seems unreasonable for them to suddenly pretend they were deceived.
Distrust is usually taken as a mandate to be more cautious, not less. Claiming ever increasingly nonsensical exaggerations of China’s own reported case numbers reveals their own inability to act and deprive Beijing’s virus fight of any legitimacy. It’s curious that none of China’s neighbors have suffered as must as the US and Europe. Most Asian countries don’t have a mind-set of cultural privilege and complacency and take all potential pandemics seriously.
The West is trying to deflect blame, exacerbated by a mind-set which interprets disease outbreaks not as an inevitable aspect of the human condition, but something belonging to exotic, oriental and poorer nations.
This unwarranted sense of privilege has caused Western countries’ complacency, and only they are to blame for the tragic results.
The author is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. [email protected]