Richard Engel: 'This is a bat virus, not a China virus'

This argument about whether or not we should be referring to the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus” has been bubbling along for at least a week now. Today, Richard Engel offered a rant about it on MSNBC: “If you look at what happened during the Middle Ages, there was lots and lots of scapegoating against an ethnic group or a religious group whenever there were pandemics that affected the society and frightened a lot of people.” He continued, “And China certainly feels that is what’s happening now with people calling it the ‘Wuhan flu’ or the ‘Wuhan virus’ or the ‘China virus.’

“This is a virus that came from the territory of China but came from bats. This is a bat virus, not a China virus. It doesn’t target Chinese people. It targets human beings who happen to touch their eyes, nose or mouth.”

Okay, I want to be balanced here because, frankly, me ranting in response to his ranting probably just adds more heat than light to a serious situation. So let’s take this a bit at a time and try not to dismiss everything he says out of hand.

First, Engel is correct that scapegoating in response to a pandemic is not a new phenomenon. There have already been a handful of instances in which police believe Asian people have been targeted and beaten for no apparent reason, except that the assailants referenced the coronavirus. There was one such attack in London earlier this month. Yesterday the New Yorker published a story about this incident and other “coronavirus hate crimes” including one in New York City where an Asian man on the subway was verbally attacked and sprayed with Febreze. There are only a handful of examples so far, but you certainly wouldn’t want to encourage the nascent trend. And, to be frank, there are a lot of dumb teenagers out there who are no longer in school and are bored. Some of them might get the wrong message from people in the White House referring to the virus as the “Kung Flu” as one reporter claimed happened yesterday.

And that’s about where I think Engel loses the thread. His sympathy for Communist China’s hurt feelings is completely misplaced in my view. China has been actively engaged in spreading conspiracy theories that blame the virus on U.S. soldiers. The NY Times reported last week that these conspiracy claims, coming from China’s Foreign Ministry, have been seen more than 160 million times on Chinese social media. So this is very widespread even if most American journalists don’t seem to be aware it is happening. Does Engel have any concern about that? Does he have any sympathy for the U.S. military that is being falsely smeared by the Chinese government? What China has done, as far as scapegoating goes, is far worse and yet it doesn’t rate a mention.

And finally we come to Engel’s statement about this being a “bat virus, not a China virus.” That’s partly true but also very misleading. It’s true in the sense that this novel coronavirus probably did originate in bats. It is believed to have spread from bats to some other mammal, likely a pangolin or civet, and from there to human beings. However, it is certainly not the case, as Engel seems to suggest, that this could have happened just anywhere in the world.

Coronavirus, like SARS before it, originated in China because of a specific set of conditions created under Chinese law. As the Vox video below explains, these bat viruses keep making their way into human populations in China because China has “wet markets” for wildlife animals where bats, pangolins and other live animals are kept close together in confined spaces. This allows deadly viruses to spread between species that, in the wild, would probably rarely encounter one another.

So it’s true this virus, having made the jump to humans, could now infect anyone. The virus itself isn’t Chinese. But this pandemic is the result of conditions created by China, conditions which have already created and spread one previous deadly virus. This wasn’t random. This is a distinctly Chinese problem. Not to mention that when Chinese officials initially uncovered this virus, they actively covered it up for nearly a month while it spread.

Engel is right that we absolutely don’t want Asian people to be targeted and harassed in the street (for something they had nothing to do with). That behavior is wrong and the White House should be careful not to do or say anything that might encourage it. On the other hand, we do want to a) reject the Chinese conspiracy theory about U.S. soldiers and b) pressure the Chinese government to take responsibility for the conditions that helped create and spread this virus.

Simply put: Scapegoating Asian people is bad, but placing responsibility on the Chinese government is good.