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The illusion of exceptionalism

  • Published at 08:21 pm March 25th, 2020
the virus FILE PHOTO: A computer image created by Nexu Science Communication together with Trinity College in Dublin, shows a model structurally representative of a betacoronavirus which is the type of virus linked to COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus linked to the Wuhan outbreak, shared with Reuters on February 18, 2020. NEXU Science Communication/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT/File Photo
A computer image created by Nexu Science Communication, together with Trinity College in Dublin, shows a model structurally representative of a betacoronavirus which is the type of virus linked to Covid-19, better known as the coronavirus linked to the Wuhan outbreak, shared with Reuters on February 18, 2020 Reuters

Nationality, race, or defiance will not save anyone from Covid-19

We were wrong about a lot of things. 

We were wrong that the virus would stay confined in China.

We were wrong that the virus would stay in the high northern latitudes and fail to spread in balmy tropical countries or the southern hemisphere’s summer. 

We were wrong that asymptomatic people don’t infect others. We would have liked to believe in our own bodies, that they could not betray us and secretly house the enemy. We indulged in the age-old delusion that other people are “dirty” and deserve their ill fortune; we the “clean” will be preserved if we can secure ourselves against their approach.

We have seen the myth of exceptionalism play out in disease outbreaks before. A hundred years ago, colonialists in Malaya thought the 1918 pandemic influenza “does not assume so serious a character as it does in the West,” until it hit us and wiped out 1% of the population, taking “the fullest advantage of the deplorable neglect of the native population of Singapore, Penang, and the Federated Malay States.”

More recently, Nipah virus emerged in the 1990s in Malaysian pig farms. Finger-pointing over the outbreak took on racial and religionist characteristics, blaming minority Chinese citizens for raising and eating these haram animals. As a result of this stereotype it is virtually unknown to the Malaysian public that subsequently, all Nipah cases have been in India and Bangladesh including Muslim communities where pigs are surely not at fault, as the virus is transmitted to palm-sap harvesters from fruitbats.

All sorts of behaviour, bizarre in hindsight, proceed naturally from the assumption that “it couldn’t happen to me.” South Africa’s first case cluster of Covid-19 was a group of tourists who thought it was still a good idea to go on a skiing holiday in Italy in late February. 

A truly staggering level of arrogance was displayed by a Russian infectious diseases consultant who travelled to Spain in early March then “continued her usual routine, giving lectures in the university, attending conferences” until she fell ill. 

Wealth and privilege are psychological cocoons; excessive piety is another. It may have been marginally excusable, but unwise, that the organizers of an itjima tabligh in Kuala Lumpur went ahead with the week-long event at the end of February. 

By the time a Hindu festival in Penang state attracted 30,000 people in the second week of March, hundreds of infected people had dispersed nationwide and overseas, although it would be a few more days before the first case was linked to the tabligh cluster.

As it rose into the hundreds, an unrelated tabligh event in Makassar, Indonesia was fortunately shut down by the local authorities, but not before several thousand pilgrims were already congregating at the site. Not to be outdone, Bangladesh held its own mass prayer event of 25,000 devotees the same week in Lakshmipur. It is now clear that God will not protect anyone from their own stupidity.

In fairness, some of the now-disproven ideas that Covid-19 spread would be limited were not just the bombast of politicians. These were early predictions by qualified, experienced, subject matter experts, including some who had studied SARS and MERS extensively. 

Since then, there has been an astoundingly swift response from the scientific and medical community in terms of sharing new data using; new tools such as preprint servers and “science Twitter” to circumvent the months-long process of traditional peer review. As quickly as new data is posted, poor experimental designs and weak findings are critiqued by dozens and hundreds of other scientists.

However, we have also been wrong in thinking that society at large would be able to respond as quickly. Certain politicians in Western countries kept repeating that Covid-19 was no more than a bad flu and would be gone by summer even as it was raging through Europe. These sentiments have been repeated and amplified by their supporters, again cocooned in the idea that their nationality, race, or sheer defiance would make them exceptional.

Opinions and predictions are fine, but only fools do not re-evaluate their opinions in the face of new facts. Philosopher Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea that science progresses in “paradigm shifts,” in other words, drastic changes to fundamental assumptions about our shared worldview. 

Another of the strange inversions this pandemic has brought about is the complete mess that several “developed” nations have made of handling it. If developing countries try not to repeat their mistakes and act promptly, as some are now doing, we may be able to save ourselves from that quagmire. 

Hwa Shi-Hsia is an infectious disease biologist from Malaysia who has worked with various pathogens in wildlife research, vaccine development, and human immunology. She lives in South Africa.