Pathogen of prejudiceCountries need to forget their borders and come together to control and eliminate the coronavirus.
The origin of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, has globally stigmatised the beautiful city in central China; and the epidemic's spread all over China affecting about 80,000 people around the world has done the same to China. The discourse surrounding the fast-spreading virus and its origin city and country has once again revealed the tension between the boundaries of what is national and what is global.
Even in 2004, when I had travelled to Wuhan to give four lectures on four different days on writing in higher education, dissertation writing, literary studies and postcolonial studies at Central China Normal University after three days of stay in Beijing, one could tell that the Chinese dragon was roaring to rise and shake off its European burden of colonial history. High-rises were coming up everywhere—Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan. City streets and shops, including the multi-storey grocery stores with live seafood in gigantic aquarium-like glass tanks and animals on floors and cages (how sinister they appear now from news reports about the rise of the virus from one of the live animal floors of a grocery store) were crowded with shoppers.
What struck me was the youthful age of the city population. Young men and women with the latest gadgets walking the streets and riding buses with bus drivers taking swigs of green tea from their glass/plastic bottles. I had never seen anybody drinking green tea like that. At times, I wished I had cooking facilities in my hotel so I could try some of the seafood at the grocery stores, but I was staying at the university hotel, where I had Mao fish almost every day for dinner when I ate by myself.
Locally, the fish was named after Mao because even though originally called Wuchang fish, Mao had mentioned it in one of his poems: ‘No sooner had I drunk water from Xiang River than I savoured Wuchang fish.’ Indeed, the fish was both cheap ($5 for a whole baked fish with delicious sauce all over it) and tasteful. It was also in Wuhan that I got to know about the nine schools of Chinese cuisine and taste the many courses from the turntable at restaurants. I also came to know that the city not only had its own very rich cuisine culture, but also hosted international restaurants. When a colleague from my institution, who had also gone there to give a lecture, and I went to a Brazilian restaurant, the variety and preparations of meat were astonishing.
One night, the university’s English faculty invited me to such a dinner, where I got to eat lotus stem and lotus root as vegetables (who knew you could eat lotus!) and another night the English Department faculty from Wuhan University (a higher ranking university than Central China Normal) hosted me for dinner in the city where I learned from them about their curriculum and teaching methods and shared with them my experiences of the educational systems in India, Nepal and the United States, including theories and stories from my globally known doctoral programme and mentor. These highly educated Chinese colleagues were curious and knowledgeable. After a while, you forgot that you were talking to colleagues from a different country.
When I woke up early and went for a walk in the morning, I found all the open spaces and parks filled with people, especially the elderly, who did Tai Chi to the tune of some music coming out of the communal soundbox. Nobody looked obese; everyone, old and young, looked fit and slim. People in the streets and the shops didn’t speak English. One day, when I got caught in the rain, I went to a store and asked for an umbrella; but when the salesperson didn’t understand what I was saying, I explained through gestures. And he understood and sold me an umbrella. Communication in the absence of language is challenging; but if there is goodwill between people, language no longer poses a barrier for communication.
One day, I rode a bus for a four or five-hour journey to the Three Gorges Dam. And the road went through villages and green rice paddies. The dam was still being built. I spent the night in the town near the dam in a hotel. I had no problem communicating despite the absence of a shared language.
Now that Wuhan has become the epicentre of the coronavirus, it is important to remember that 11 million people live there—people who have been cut off from the world and from other Chinese cities. Even in this unprecedented crisis, people must eat, shop for basic necessities and live in safety until the threat of the virus subsides.
The Chinese government is now being praised all over the world for taking draconian measures to stop the virus. For example, according to the New York Times, the city of Beijing has imposed new rules. Workers are not allowed to eat face-to-face; offices and elevators can fill only half their capacity at any one time, and each worker needs to keep 2.5 square metres of workspace around them. However, the world over, the Chinese government was faulted for not allowing the information to come out at the earliest despite the early warnings of a 34-year-old doctor, Li Wenliang, who was interrogated by the police for 'rumour-mongering' and who later contracted the virus and died.
There is no doubt that the legacy of Western colonialism, and the present threat that China’s rise poses to Western powers, may have come out directly or indirectly in the coverage of the virus in many Western media outlets. But it is also equally important to note that China is no longer a small power but a global player on the world stage, and so needs to develop both a thick skin and a reasonable degree of openness in matters of health and safety because health, safety and other basic necessities are not explicitly political matters. So the regime doesn’t need to be threatened about openness in these matters. A rising global power needs to have an equally capacious heart.
At the same time, it is also equally important to remember that out of China’s 1.4 billion people, about 79,000 people have contracted the Covid-19 virus and 2,764 have died. While precaution, prevention and search for a cure are important, there is no room for Sinophobia, as has developed, for example, in South Korea, where some shops have begun posting signs saying, 'No Chinese'. Instead, despite the recent rise of hyper-nationalism in many countries, this is the time that countries need to forget their borders and come together to control and eliminate the virus because the virus has transgressed national borders without a passport or visa, and spread across countries and continents.
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