Opinionista David Buckham 5 April 2020

A perplexing conclusion to a Covid-19 study may be indicative of an erosion of democracy 

From an ontological perspective, the comment made at the end of the Nature Medicine study, questioning the relevance of investigating the origins of Covid-19, appears to me to be the fingerprint of a Western obsession with what in academic circles is called intersectionality.

In the thick of battle during the winter of 1917, in the horror of the trenches that had been dug to hold the Western Front, to reflect on the origins of the Great War at that time would have been in bad taste. Whether it was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, or whether it was more generally the Austro-Hungarian empire’s European aspirations that set the war in motion, was irrelevant. It was a time for battle, not a time for historians. 

This line of thinking – employing the war metaphor that is the most popular of conceits among Western politicians right now – is, roughly speaking, the one taken by the authors of a recently published study in the research journal Nature Medicine

The study considers the potential for the coronavirus that is mercilessly afflicting the human race to have been hosted as an intermediary between bats and us, in pangolins, specifically those traded in wet markets in Wuhan, China. In this scientific study, the goal of the authors is to identify to what degree the SARS-CoV-2 virus is similar to the viruses found in Malayan pangolins. 

This investigation is undertaken for the purpose of ascertaining whether there is scientific proof that the source of Covid-19 was a zoonotic infection in a wet market in Wuhan. The illegal and unsanitary sale of wild animals in these markets has widely been postulated as the cause of the viral “jump” to humans.

What is perplexing in reading this scientific article is that the authors explicitly avert any of the moral or socio-political conclusions that could be drawn, albeit not entirely scientifically, from the conclusions of the study. Despite the strong genetic similarity between certain pangolin coronavirus genomes and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the authors are not convinced that the pangolin was the intermediary host from which patient zero of this coronavirus outbreak was infected. In a self-reflective postmodern moment, they question, and thereby effectively undermine, the purpose of the study itself, when they write: “In the midst of the global Covid-19 public-health emergency, it is reasonable to wonder why the origins of the pandemic matter.” 

This, to my mind, is a particularly unscientific reflection, given the topic and the timing of their study – published on 17 March 2020, at a point when already 200,000 people were infected with the virus across the world, with almost half of these cases identified in China. 

In the midst of this global pandemic, it is disheartening that scientists would minimise the relationship between what they recognise to be the unsanitary conditions in which wild animals are sold and consumed in Chinese wet markets, and the significant human cost of the rapid and deadly spread of this new virus. It is even more disheartening that they would undermine the value of their own work.

Contrary to these researchers’ geo-political views, the question of origin is absolutely central to a number of very significant issues that are presently and immediately impacting our response to the virus. Indeed, understanding the origin of the virus is important for managing its spread and it is vital for the development of a vaccine. Surely, no more pressing scientific endeavour can exist at this time – and yet, there is a distinct hesitancy evidenced in the voices of these scientists.

From an ontological perspective, the comment made at the end of the Nature Medicine study, questioning the relevance of investigating the origins of Covid-19, appears to me to be the fingerprint of a Western obsession with what in academic circles is called intersectionality – the theoretical framework that, at its core, seeks to identify prejudice and discrimination as it occurs at multiple, often intersecting levels. 

So deeply is this theoretical framework embedded in the Western liberal psyche at present that even the authors of the study would rather undermine the scientific importance of their own work than succumb to some form of subconscious prejudice. And what this almost guilty hesitancy betrays is a complex, overarching psychological dynamic in the liberal Western mindset; a tentativeness to uncover the truth, lest it should mean contravening the laws of political correctness or be deemed prejudicial or discriminatory in any way or form. A debilitating fear that whatever we may say or do will somehow place us on the wrong side of history. 

What is most concerning about this mental framework is that it has effectively resulted in a form of crowd-sourced censorship. As independent thinkers, we are effectively unable to utter a categorical thought, without either being identified with the political right – and the garish statements made by Donald Trump – or conversely, with extremist liberal identity politics. And what this seems to signal is that our freedom – as journalists, scientists, or simply thinking citizens – is in a far more precarious position than we previously may have believed. 

Indeed, as Douglas Murray notes in The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (2019), intersectionality has caused a kind of paralysis. It is, as he defines it: “the invitation to spend the rest of our lives attempting to work out each and every identity and vulnerability claim in ourselves and others.”

The problem this mindset creates is that even scientists no longer dare to draw conclusions about the origins of Covid-19, even when this information is potentially vital to preventing loss of life on a global scale. Let us not forget that it was not the first wave of the Spanish flu in April 1918 that resulted in large scale loss of life, but the second wave in October and November of the same year in which millions perished. 

The Spanish flu resulted in the death of between 20-million and 50-million people and, as Laura Spinney describes in Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World (2017), the virus “was as significant – if not more so – as two world wars in creating the modern world, in disrupting, and often permanently altering, global politics, race relations, family structures and thinking across medicine, religion and the arts”. 

Observing the misdirection, confusion and panic in the US administration’s response to the pandemic, and contrasting this with the functional, efficient and dispassionate response of the Chinese administration, it occurred to me that we should all be a little more aware that we may inadvertently slide into a passive acceptance of authoritarian rule as a viable form of governance. For if we cannot ask even where the virus came from, then the freedoms and benefits of democracy are limited. DM

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