Is it wrong to blame "China" if the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab?

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Dr. Leana Wen, a Chinese-American, says yes. I say, why?

Or rather, why would we follow the rule she suggests for China when we don’t follow it for any other country?

Wen is concerned, justifiably, with the rash of attacks on Asian-Americans. She senses that those attacks are going to get worse, and may have already gotten worse, as the theory that the coronavirus leaked from the lab in Wuhan has grown more popular. With that in mind, she’s searching for small ways that politicians and the media might discourage hate crimes.

She has an idea.

Over the past two weeks, as the theory has gained traction that the pandemic might have been touched off by an accidental release from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, I’ve experienced an uptick in racist hate mail, above the steady baseline levels I’ve received daily since last March. At the same time, I’ve received frantic messages from older Asian American people terrified by reports of other members of our community who have been beaten, set on fire, left for dead or murdered…

But surely it isn’t difficult to distinguish between investigating a country’s leadership and directing animus toward an entire people. Except history, of course, gives us context and reason to raise the alarm. Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au, a physician herself, points to past instances in the United States of linking Asian immigrants to “infiltration, infection and contagion.”…

Words matter, and politicians and members of the news media need to be more careful with theirs. If they are opining about negative actions of the Chinese government or individual scientists, they should say that rather than use blanket terminology to criticize “China” or “the Chinese.” They should also remind the public that questioning the actions of government authorities should not be equated with distrust or hatred of the Chinese people — or of Chinese Americans or others of Asian heritage.

That’s a small concession to make in the name of deterring attacks on Asian-Americans.

But what reason is there to believe that criticizing the “Chinese government” rather than “China” would matter to the sort of droog otherwise inclined to sucker punch an 80-year-old Asian woman on the street?

Relatedly, and notwithstanding the uptick in hate mail for Wen, is it actually true that the lab-leak theory will inspire more animosity towards people of Asian descent than the currently accepted conventional wisdom? Because that’s no picnic either:

“You people cursed us with this plague by being negligent in a lab” isn’t obviously uglier than “you people cursed us with this plague by eating filthy flying rodents.”

But I can see Wen’s side of that argument. If SARS-CoV-2 leaped from an animal to a human being, some people will tolerate that as an “act of God” notwithstanding the sanitation habits at Chinese wet markets. A zoonotic origin for the virus has the trappings of fate, something that couldn’t plausibly have been avoided. A lab leak would be different, particularly given the American public’s awareness of the fact that the Wuhan Institute didn’t always follow the containment protocols commensurate with the risk from the work they were doing.

It’s roughly the difference, I think, between a deer running out in front of your car, causing a crash, and a drunk driver slamming into you. Or rather, in light of the death toll in the U.S., a drunk driver slamming into you and killing everyone in your family. Would you feel the same degree of rage after those two incidents?

As I say, though, if you’re the type of person prone to attacking an elderly Asian woman because you’re mad about the pandemic, these fine conceptual distinctions about moral culpability may be lost on you.

My real issue with Wen’s point is that it’s selectively applied. If our media decides that it’s no longer proper to use country names as bywords for the actions of that country’s government in order to avoid inciting racial hatred, that rule should be applied uniformly. And yet, as surely as you’re sitting there reading this, it won’t be.

No one blanches at criticizing “Israel” instead of the “Israeli government” despite the outburst of attacks on American Jews over the past few weeks. Any reporters who insist on distinguishing China from the Chinese government in describing the lab leak without applying that distinction elsewhere — “Russia meddled in the 2016 campaign” should no longer be appropriate, for instance — should have to explain why.

Wen is clear in saying that scientists should investigate the possibility that the virus escaped from the WIV, whatever that might mean for a surge in hate crimes in the west. But not every scientist may be that intellectually honest. Nate Silver pointed recently to this story in Nature with the comment, “it seems very warped that a bunch of prominent scientists are saying we shouldn’t investigate the claims for reasons that have little to do with science and lots to do with politics.”

In the Science letter, the authors note that Asian people have been harassed by those who blame COVID-19 on China, and attempt to dissuade abuse. Nonetheless, some aggressive proponents of the lab-leak hypothesis interpreted the letter as supporting their ideas…

Kristian Andersen, a virologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, maintains that no strong evidence supports a lab leak, and he worries that hostile demands for an investigation into the WIV will backfire, because they often sound like allegations. He says this could make Chinese scientists and officials less likely to share information. Other virologists suggest that such sentiments could lead to more scrutiny of US grants for research projects conducted in China…

Fidler … says that the escalating demands and allegations are contributing to a geopolitical rift at a moment when solidarity is needed. “The United States continues to poke China in the eye on this issue of an investigation,” he says.

A lot of researchers out there seem willing, even eager to move on from the lab-leak theory for their own pet political reasons, or possibly for the overarching reason that confirmation would bring disrepute onto their profession and further undermine trust in the entire scientific expert class. It’d be easy for some to seize on Wen’s concern about hate crimes as another pretense for not dwelling on the virus’s origins. But the virus’s origins do matter, both for the future of civilian oversight of scientific research and for the credibility of China’s narrative that its handling of COVID was a success story relative to the west’s. Again, Wen’s not saying that the subject should be dropped or the lab-leak theory discredited for humanitarian reasons. But others will.