Western Orientalism and COVID-19

The failure of the West to take lessons from the East throughout this pandemic seems reflective of an age-old superiority complex

4 months ago

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In a recent Sunday Times investigation into the UK government’s approach to Covid-19, one source tells the national newspaper: “There has basically been a divide between scientists in Asia who saw this as a horrible, deadly disease on the lines of SARS, which requires immediate lockdown, and those in the West, particularly in the US and UK, who saw this as flu.”

While this point would be easy to overlook when paired with the revelations of the government’s grave failures, it arguably symbolizes the rotten ideology which lies at the very core of the crisis both nations now face.

It is no secret that the West has long considered the East its inferior; an under-developed, exotic ‘Other’ in need of guidance and enlightenment. Such a belief was often upheld as a justification for the brutalities of colonialism; it is what led academic Edward Said to establish the theory of Orientalism to explain the West’s distorted, self-serving perceptions of the East, as he described how: “Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization.”

Similarly dangerous and false stereotypes are upheld throughout Western discourse regarding East Asian culture, and is what Said believes has led Western empires to masquerade violent imperialism as ‘a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy’ to these supposedly virtueless populations. This historic contempt for the East - paired with the false notion of Western superiority - has become abundantly clear once again throughout the current Coronavirus crisis. The repercussions have proved devastating.

When news of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, hit headlines in January, Asian scientists warned of the severity of the disease and urged the rest of the world to take heed. We watched in horror as thousands of Chinese citizens contracted the disease, tragically resulting in the deaths of almost 5,000 people.

Yet, despite the US and UK governments having seven weeks to prepare - while witnessing the likes of Italy’s severe struggles against the virus in that time - both Trump’s administration and Johnson’s government dithered and dallied through what would turn out to be detrimental inaction. Despite numerous leading infectious disease scientists issuing warnings which emphasized the need for social distancing, they neglected to implement these necessary measures.

In the US, Trump’s procrastination and reluctance to act served a damning blow to the nation, with the US now having by far the highest number of Coronavirus cases and over 100,000 deaths. The UK government’s incompetent response to the virus similarly parallels this, as Health Secretary Matt Hancock continued to downplay the risk of COVID-19 to UK citizens throughout the majority of March as news of confirmed cases emerged across the nation.

The correlation here seems to speak for itself. Two of the richest nations - both Western ‘superpowers’ - each veered from the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO), taking matters into their own hands by implementing strategies which largely contradicted the actions of every other country - and notably non-Western nations - that had successfully limited the spread of the disease. This is no coincidence.

The failure of the West to take lessons from the East throughout this pandemic seems reflective of an age-old superiority complex which has once again reared its ugly head not only through the arrogant responses of the US and UK governments but also through attitudes towards the origins of the disease itself. Chinese culture has become a convenient scapegoat, allowing an Orientalist, West-knows-best ideology to run rife. Since the video of a woman eating ‘bat soup’ began to circulate social media soon after the COVID-19 outbreak in China, assumptions were quickly made.

With scientists believing the virus may have transferred from bat to human, the video soon became a timely tool to push a divisive agenda - one steeped in xenophobia. Despite this video actually having been recorded in the Pacific island nation of Palau, facts were of little importance to those who wanted to ridicule and criticize alleged Chinese eating habits, deeming them responsible for the disease.

The consumption of wildlife across China does, of course, occur. Yet, wildlife markets operate across the globe. The consumption of animals for food - despite the racialized narrative we now see permeating public discourse across the West - is not unique to China. In the West, we consume meat which many cultures consider distasteful - lamb and pork, for example. Snails are a French delicacy. Renowned British chef, Nigella Lawson, includes ‘baked rabbit’ as a dinner party recipe. Why, then, do we now scrutinize Chinese culture, as though the West is a morally superior, vegetarian utopia?

This xenophobia towards East Asians has become increasingly vicious. Since the beginning of the outbreak, anti-Asian racism has led to a spike in hate crime towards Asian communities. What certainly does not help to quell this is Trump’s persistence in labelling the virus ‘the Chinese virus’, undeniably encouraging the racialization of the disease. More than 1,500 physical and verbal attacks against Asian American citizens have been logged by the website ‘Stop AAPI Hate’ since late March.

Both in action and in attitude, the West has revealed a deep contempt and disregard of the East at this time. Whether through dismissing the advice of East Asian scientists and prioritizing our own untried and untested strategies or playing the blame game, it seems that the Western self-image of supremacy remains strong. Yet, perhaps we ought to take a greater look at our own failures at this time before we point the finger.

Two months into the US’ lockdown, these attitudes prevail. Many Americans are determinedly refusing to wear face masks - something which, prior to Covid-19, was renowned for being a predominantly Asian cultural practice that has long been mocked across the West. Some have taken to correlating this practice with a loss of freedom, with a recent example being a Costco customer who was asked to leave the store after refusing to wear a face covering - a policy introduced by the company in an attempt to operate as safely as possible. The customer in question provides his reasoning behind his refusal to wear a face mask: "because I woke up in a free country."

This resistance to wearing a face mask seems symptomatic of the culture war we have watched burgeoning throughout the pandemic, with the concept of submitting to this conventionally Asian practice viewed as a threat to individual liberty rather than an attempt to protect society as a whole. Again, this comes down to more than simply a matter of personal preference; it is rather symbolic of deep-rooted prejudices which see the West synonymous with freedom and democracy versus the East as authoritarian and primitive.

The West’s approach to the Coronavirus is one which has led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands, with political commentators in both the US and UK suggesting that an inquiry into the government’s failures will take place once the pandemic is over. On the contrary, those nations the West often views as inferior and ‘less advanced’ - Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong - have each managed to contain the virus strikingly well despite being located far nearer to China. This is not a matter of point scoring, yet what it should ensure is that the West’s warped perceptions of differing cultures and economic systems are dismantled once and for all.

Holly Barrow is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organization of immigration lawyers based in the US, UK and Ireland


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Holly Barrow

Published 4 months ago