Silver Linings Playbook: Is the coronavirus a necessary wake-up call?

Coronavirus has struck at an interesting time. These are turbulent days. Commentators speak in seismic proportions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ replacing such indulgencies as past and future. We are living in the midst of an Event, or a The Event, like the event which occurred on the 11th of September, 2001. It is an event that shapes modern history, after which one does not look back in quite the same way. Maybe such an event is inevitable. Maybe coronavirus is necessary for us to change direction.

We’ve got the whole world in our hands – or is it the other way round?

It is bad

Chilling stories are emerging which recommend the most drastic measures for 12–18 months. If not, 2.2 million will die. If we are clever and disciplined and follow orders, only 1.1 million will die. If we alter our lifestyles dramatically, only 20,000 will die.

The only reliable metric we have is death count. Different countries test and report differently. Widespread testing has not yet been rolled out, and the 14-day incubation period means that even if draconian measures are put in place now, we could still see sharp rises in case numbers during the two weeks that follow.

But it has always been bad

It is interesting that, following such cataclysmic climate catastrophes as the Australian bushfires, it is only now that such measures look likely. In 2018, as many as 29 million people were adversely affected by climate disasters. Wildfires ravaged California, hurricanes battered other parts of the US, and 5 million were displaced by flooding in India.

If you look at the numbers, they are staggering in ways the coronavirus isn’t — yet. We live in a time of unprecedented times. We read about giant events resetting the lives of other people all the time. But these are localised, generally speaking, or at least easy to think of as such.

Climate activists the world over called for policy overhauls, and small victories were won. But nothing fundamentally changed. Someone dies by committing suicide every 40 seconds. There were over 6,500 suicides in the UK in 2018 alone. The Yemeni Civil War has led to as many as 100,000 deaths since 2015. But for some reason, these all get swept under the rug. There are ongoing global tragedies that fail to galvanise us as a human population.

We are, or at least should be, better together

Is coronavirus the silver bullet we need?

In the wake of COVID-19, there have been a smattering of quietly beautiful news reports. Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan are among several Chinese cities to be enjoying uncharacteristically blue skies. Air pollution levels are lower than they have been, in some cases, for decades.

Likewise, in Italy, pollution levels are plummeting. The ban on all but essential travel in swathes of Europe is allowing the continent’s airwaves to breathe, and its waterways to refresh. The canals of Venice are seeing dolphins for the first time in 60 years.

An unexpected side effect of the pandemic: Water’s flowing through the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in forever.
The fish are visible, the swans returned

Europe’s most hated airline, along with several other budget carriers, are grounding the vast majority of their flights. While this is an estimable bummer for pilots and crews, the benefits are clear.

The yet-to-be-realised cherry

Social commentators in the UK, US and elsewhere are noticing the resurgence in favour of socialist policies. Educational institutions, both brick-and-mortar and online, are making pay-to-access materials free for a limited time (read: 12 to 18 months) to help those in quarantine. Visited the NYTThe Journal, and QNS for more detail on those. In the UK, the Co-op has joined legions of others in supporting children forced to stay home during these first months of the pandemic.

Healthcare professionals, among other keyworkers keeping our society relatively intact, are self-deploying on the frontline. Volunteers are jumping out of the woodwork. Community groups abound. Town councils are considering buying and cultivating local land. Teachers are offering their services remotely and for free.

We are seeing glimmers of a socialist utopia through the cracks forming in our crumbling, ultra-consumerist paradigm. Universal Basic Income is being floated with renewed buoyancy — people all over country are recognising that the government’s business-first approach has set us up to fail during a time of global health crisis. Our gutted NHS is understaffed, under-resourced and criminally undervalued.

And lead us not into temptation

It has been said that we will see the best and worst of humanity in the coming weeks and months. It is tempting in such situations to simplify the virus. We might see it as a divine clarion call, or method of holy retribution — punishment for sins uncountable — designed to sweep us out of ideology and into something purer. But do not become unstuck.

From FP:

Anti-misinformation measures from tech companies may help mute these voices, but, as the anti-vaccine movement demonstrates, the task will be Sisyphean unless we understand and address the mechanism by which maladies become mirrors.

Aside from being a killer reference to Sisyphus and delightfully alliterative, this is perceptive. Human populations are weak when shocked. Ideas proliferate, but so do prejudices, misinformation and wanton references to the divine.

Conspirators sit at their computers, or in front of shiny logos, and pontificate about the ever-changing ‘they’ and what ‘they’ stand to gain. Trump calls it a Chinese virus — we are told to ‘wake up and smell the silicon’ — Asian-looking Brits are being beaten in the streets. Heaven only knows what Piers Morgan has to say.

Seek method in madness, and measures of moderation

If you gaze long into the abyss of a disease, your own ideology gazes back at you.

True, and fair enough. The virus is not some pendulous revenge tack swung back at us by Mother Nature herself. We are not living an allegory, lungs besieged by the viral wing of a suffocating Gaia.

Yes, there are somewhat pleasingly poetic connections to be found between our hyper-industrial, anthropocentric activity on this earth, a strangling of the world’s resources, or pummelling of its vital organs, and the ease with which the coronavirus swipes at our respiratory systems — individual and collective.

But the blanket coverage of coronavirus is not a test from a divine power. Nor, probably, was it fabricated with evil intent, or released by Jeff Bezos to increase dependence on Amazon. Disparate micro-patterns emerge but do not necessarily form a larger whole. Those profiting from the virus are simply well placed. Obviously Bezos stands to gain because he is well placed to gain in just about any situation.

If we are going to ride this wave towards a socialist utopia (and please let’s do that), let us do so carefully, with measure, and without crashing.

Remember, always remember:

Ginger:
Ladies, please. Let’s not lose our heads.

Bunty:
Lose our heads? Aaaahh.

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This article also appears on Medium, as part of the Data Driven Investor publication, along with another piece titled:
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?

Read more on the subject elsewhere on this blog:
What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?
Old China vs New China
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
China: The importance of being sincere

What is the most interesting thing about Coronavirus [COVID-19]?

Coronavirus has devastated swathes of China and infected tens of thousands in Italy, Iran, South Korea and northern Europe. Experts predict it could infect half the world’s population in its lifetime–some say it is here to stay, much as is flu or the common cold. But coronavirus may have a dark, secret history, deep in the bowels of Wuhan’s National Biosafety Laboratory, part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

[This article also appears on Medium. Read more pieces about China here, here and here.]

Where did coronavirus come from? “The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market,” you say

Spoken, heard, read and written across the world, the story goes that the virus spontaneously hopped from animal to animal, living and/or dead, in a Wuhan wet market. Images circulated of the cheek-by-jowl bustle of such places. 

Incidentally, the Wikipedia page for the market in question lists among its wares some very peculiar items, at least, by ‘western standards’. Long before the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market made a name for itself as the so-called birthplace of this particular strain of coronavirus, it was a marketplace for rabbit organs, spotted deer, koalas and/or beavers, camel, wolf puppies and, for good measure, Emmental cheese. 

It is the perfect story. We in the West love to read about what the Chinese are prepared to eat. We fetishise the Chinese propensity for eating every part of the animal, and blindly condemn the consumption of animals such as dogs (despite tucking into an equally intelligent and emotionally attuned animal, the humble pig, as a national pastime). It was one of the first questions I was asked upon returning from a stint in Chengdu in 2017 – “Did you eat dog?” I was almost sorry to disappoint.

But the story stands on shaky legs. The first documented cases of Covid-19 were among people who may never have set foot in the much mythologised seafood market. 

Sometimes the truth is an even better story

The truth may be more insidious, less banally cartoonish. Biological warfare, aka the development and deployment of bio-weapons, has been part of reality’s fabric for longer than you would care to think–much longer. Our shared history includes stories of Roman soldiers dipping their swords, and Scythian archers their arrows, into cadavers and faeces, causing their victims to be infected with tetanus. There are those who argue that the Black Death resulted from deliberate germ warfare.

Bio-weapons are defined as living organisms or replicating entities (this latter includes viruses, which are not universally considered ‘alive’). Bio-weaponry has always been difficult to control, and merciless when unleashed. In the last century, we have developed increasingly sophisticated bio-weapons for use during WWI, WWII and beyond. War strategists now have the ability to specifically target personnel, crops, livestock or fisheries. 

In Britain, the 1950s saw the weaponisation of a variety of diseases such as plague, tularaemia, brucellosis and vaccinia viruses. At the same time, the United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories were doing the same. National-level policies to ban the use of biological weapons date back to 1969, when the UK and the Warsaw Pact introduced proposals to the UN.

Coronavirus: “Hopefully it won’t last long since it was made in China”

In February, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released a new directive to those in its employ, titled: “Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus.”

In China, as in many other countries, there are microbiology labs which conduct in-depth research into bacterial, viral and fungal diseases. Laboratories are given a Biosafety Level (or Containment Level in Canada). Levels of precaution ascend according to the Biosafety Level. For example, at Level 1, laboratory personnel must wash their hands upon entry. 

Biosafety Level 4 microbiology labs are used for diagnostic work and research on easily transmitted pathogens which can cause fatal disease. Examples include a number of viruses known to cause viral haemorrhage fever, such as the Ebola and Lassa viruses. Level 4 laboratories also work with Variola virus, the causative agent of smallpox. These are the realm of protective suits and disinfectant tanks, autoclaves and chemical showers. They must have seamless edges to allow for easy cleaning. 

There is precisely one microbiology lab in all of China that handles “advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus”, and it is located in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic – in the city of Wuhan. To be clear: this is the only laboratory on Chinese soil that handles viruses such as the novel coronavirus, and it is the city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Exhibit B: Bio warfare expert Chen Wei is in charge of containing the outbreak

This is the intriguing fact that the top biological warfare expert of the People’s Liberation Army of China, Major General Chen Wei, is the woman drafted in to Wuhan at the end of January with the task of containing the outbreak. 

Aside from it being evidently uncontainable, this is striking for how it looks, diplomatically. Chen has been researching coronaviruses since 2003’s SARS outbreak. She has also been through the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s doors more than once before. Such a dispatch rings alarm bells, especially when compounded with the notion that this is exactly the type of place where a coronavirus would be artificially developed.

The scariest part

To me, the most frightening thing about all of this is not the notion that China has the capacity, or even the political will, to develop new strains of a deadly virus. As a cynical citizen of the West, I rest on the presumption that most of the world’s most powerful countries are either doing something similar, or at the very least have the political will to. 

Despite near universal ratification of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, stories abound about offensive biological weapons programs, in Russia and beyond. ProCon lists Algeria, China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia and Syria as Maybe/Likely in possession of biological weapons. I would not be surprised to learn of clandestine bio-weaponry programs in Europe or North America.

So no, that China is capable and/or willing is not the most frightening thing. The most disquieting part, if this is true, is that China lacks the capacity to contain the virus. If it got out of the lab, the most concerning thing is that it got out of the lab. The NY Post writes that China has unleashed a plague on its own people. Again, if the rumours are true, it has unleashed a plague on the whole world

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https://www.ibtimes.sg/wuhan-virus-china-may-have-just-accepted-that-man-made-coronavirus-escaped-its-biowarfare-lab-39911?fbclid=IwAR23WbADEIarAcfdSumtwVYfrYJO0B_CxNtmOTxo48X0AMTNHaNK21FgY1I

https://nypost.com/2020/02/22/dont-buy-chinas-story-the-coronavirus-may-have-leaked-from-a-lab/?fbclid=IwAR225Dxxg3gqJHNh71ve1amKklUxOQmnMMrPHpPuc0_hI09j_mcGwv0GK1o

https://usiraq.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000678

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51839944

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/asia/china-coronavirus-contain.html