I call this pandemic a plague but not COVID-19 or any other names that aims to politicize it or de-politicize it. Although, in the end, it is all political one way or the other. For me, the imagery of a plague prioritizes the social, collective scenario of suffering over the biological, technical calculation of governing, and perhaps concealing.
It is now a truism that the Chinese government hid the disease until January. As Taiwanese who linguistically comprehend posts on Weibo that were regularly made to disappear by Beijing, we have seen truth-revealing words and videos accusing Beijing of manufacturing lies after lies. From day one Taiwanese have known that the number of deaths in Wuhan was far larger than admitted. Chinese netizens risked their lives to tell us so.
In January and February, Beijing managed to release a daily number of deaths that matched perfectly the 2.1% death rate that the regime had selected to be the reality. But Taiwanese knew better. We knew that people in Wuhan were afraid to go to the hospital. Once in, no way out; the sick would only get sicker, and the sicker would be abandoned. Too many died without ever being diagnosed. Death without diagnosis.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that today we are tempted to think that if the Chinese government had done the right thing last December, all of these disasters could have been averted. But how fair is this thought?
Conspiracy and complacency
I cannot help but think of the role of WHO, which seemed to put its relationship with Beijing above other concerns, and of Western countries that dismissed plague as merely an Asian disaster. Soon, WHO and whoever followed its advice (“no need to cut out contacts with China”, etc.) in January and February failed horribly. But the unfolding of the pandemic with such ferocity was not caused single-handedly by the conspiracy between WHO and Beijing. It was also a lot of initial complacency that was shared by many Euro-American governments. The US and Europe had two months to get ready, and yet they were utterly unprepared.
If there is no civil society in China and no one can speak truth to power, what should be the characterization of civil society in Euro-America, where media and officials spent weeks telling each other that the seasonal flu was a much bigger issue and COVID-19 was but another flu?
WHO now has some strict self-censorship. For example, Rule #1. Pretend you do not hear the question when the word “Taiwan” comes up. Rule #2. Don’t say anything that implies Taiwan is an independent country. Rule #3. Disrupt an online meeting if the word “Taiwan” keeps coming up. This is all true. But what about EU’s silence on WHO’s changes and on human rights abuses in China over the years? So many more martyrs of freedom of speech. EU has been largely fine with it, as long as Chinese cash is flowing in.
Orientalist myths of face masks
There is more. For a while many Western authors explained to the world that the weird habit of wearing surgical masks in Asia was a manifestation of cultural norm or solidarity. Their assumption was that since it couldn’t be scientific, it had to be cultural. The standard “scientific West, cultural Rest” scenario. Mask-wearing has been over and over again presented as a false but “symbolically valuable” “myth” that comforts poor, conformist Asians, until very recently.
The truth is that the West is just as cultural as the Rest. There has been a kind of face-centrist self-formation, where the face is the “natural symbol” (Douglas 1967) of the liberal subject. A deeply entrenched fetishism about the face, a kind of semiotic ideology that celebrates exposed faces and resents the face-covering images associated with “oppressed” Muslim women. With the mask on you are a lesser you (or a greater you, if you are Batman). Either way, the mask transforms the person into something else.
Yet again, cultures change all the time. Even current practices are historical products. Japan and Taiwan adopted the mask habit for different reasons and in different times, and before 2020, people in China actually did NOT have the habit of mask-wearing. All of a sudden, however, all these differences were lumped together into one big East Asian thing. This was and is entirely inaccurate. Taiwanese started the habit only 17 years ago due to the traumatic experience of SARS. Initially people felt just as odd as some in the West feel now. And guess what, although there isn’t much research about the protective effectiveness of masks, there has been SOME research. On March 13th I read 11 scientific papers including those on ncbi/pubmed. Almost all of them suggest that masks can reduce risk of infection to varying degrees if designed and worn properly. All this academic information went unnoticed.
It was only after the US and a large part of Europe collapsed, that the US CDC on April 3rd recommended that, for the first time, everyone should wear the mask in public. It turns out that the small number of studies regarding mask efficacy for the general public is probably a product of cultural prejudice, not a reflection of scientific truth.
Muffling other people’s cultural difference
If we keep in mind that each East Asian country has rather different policies on how to tackle the outbreak—even though from afar they all look similar to Westerners—we can avoid any culturalist explanation of the current situation. In March, some English and German media reduced East Asia’s success in curbing Covid-19 to Confucianism, basically saying that East Asians love to be controlled by their governments. I was literally infuriated. This obnoxious characterization is nothing less than a discourse that infantilizes Asians and conveniently exonerates Euro-American governments from all responsibilities for their failure.
For one thing, Taiwanese refuse to accept any draconian measures unconditionally. Taiwan’s robust civil society is made up of thousands of journalists, health workers, lawyers, scientists and social scientists, who endlessly debate the cost and benefit of each and every step that the government has taken so far. We have arguably the best and most affordable healthcare system in the world, and we have accepted our international travel history being linked into our health system only temporarily, and only because it helps disease-prevention. Epidemiologists and scientists are the decision-makers at our Centers for Disease Control (CDC), but people also voice their concerns and have made CDC change its policy repeatedly. We have argued so much with one another about each measure in relation to the best of all the scientific knowledge in the world and closely watch the government to make sure it does not erode people’s rights in the name of epidemic control. And yet, some Western commentators can just say that our success so far is just because of Confucianism or draconian measures? It is humiliating.
In fact, the way the Taiwanese CDC works even startled Chinese citizens, for they could not believe that “high officials could be so humble and patient to serve the people.” To say that Taiwanese demand radical transparency is not inappropriate. It’s basically like two worlds on the different sides of the Taiwan Strait.
In Singapore, the civil society is weak, so it is the state that does most of the job. In Hong Kong, it was their civil society that initially did most of the job of preventing the disease when the state betrayed the society by not enforcing a reasonable border control with the mainland. In China, high-handed rules dominated and whistle-blowers died, and if there was any spark that wished to ignite a civil society into being, it was crushed immediately. In Taiwan, civil society still questions and criticizes every step the CDC has taken every single day, even though by world standard the latter has already done a fantastic job.
Only ignorance and arrogance can combine all these very different anti-virus experiences into one big story of Confucianism or draconian measures.
Western complacency, and then Western victimhood. But Beijing is not the only one that wishes to rid itself of the role of the murderer and become a savior to the world. Most of the Euro-American colonial regimes did exactly the same thing in the past. In fact, just take a look at what the Middle East has been through, including anti-Ottoman campaigns, WWII, US-Soviet war, the Iraq War, and the rise of ISIS, one cannot help but wonder if “killing like a murderer, and then posing like a savior” is but a standard part of the play book. A play book for imperialism disguised as humanitarianism. Indeed, when we start to dwell on the question of “what is it like for human beings to live with radical uncertainty?”, we almost pretend that the Gaza Strip does not exist.
Conspiracy kills, but so does complacency. With all the deaths caused by the plague and other plagues of war, we must revive history and learn from it. Make all the deaths worth it, with or without the virus.
En-Chieh Chao is Associate Professor of Sociology Department at NSYSU, Taiwan