Category Archives: Coronavirus

Entre-pocalypse:The End of America’s Long Twentieth Century (1898-2020)

In historical parlance, the term “century” denotes less a block of time than a zeitgeist, that roughly corresponds to the contours of a particular century.

Thus, Europe’s “long nineteenth century” spans the 125-year period from 1789 and 1914–a time when the (most of the) continent’s societies transitioned from semi-feudal monarchies to industrial democracies. The Storming of the Bastille and World War I provide meaningful start and end points, the former birthing Europe’s first bourgeois democracy and the latter marking the climax of Europe’s industrial militarization.

The COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent uprising against police brutality, seem to bring about a major rupture in American history. With our federal government failing to provide its citizens with the most basic safeguards against the pandemic, yet capable of inflicting gratuitous violence on them, it seems clear that America’s 122-year reign as a military and economic superpower and, as a so-called “leader of the free world,” has concluded. It is time to start talking about the end of America’s Long Twentieth Century.


The Long Twentieth Century began in Havana, then part of the Spanish colony of Cuba, on the night of February 15, 1898.

The US had just come of age, economically (having surpassed Britain in manufacturing output in 1885). Militarily, the US was still in infancy-with a navy and army smaller than Italy’s. Despite having catapulted to the apex of the world’s economy, the US neither pursued colonial expansion nor exerted cultural cachet.

At 9:40 P.M., the U.S.S. Maine, a Navy ship berthed in Havana harbor mysteriously exploded. 251 of the 290 sailors on board perished.

Copyright Tim Evanson, Flickr

By morning, the Hearst newspapers were clamoring for revenge on Spain. Two months later, President McKinley declared war. By the end of the year, America had seized control of the Phillippines, Cuba and Guam. Spain surrendered in September. The US now had an empire, and a military, to reckon with.

Over the next half-century, America’s global military and economic influence grew in tandem. America won two World Wars, hosted historical peace conferences and laid the foundations for a new international order.

Domestically, presidents like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt established anti-trust and social welfare legislation that allowed all of America’s citizens to share in its riches. The impressive economic expansion during World War II-the closest thing to a “people’s war” in Howard Zinn’s reckoning-yielded economic prosperity at home while furthering democracy overseas.

And in a corner of the country called “Hollywood”, motion pictures created an alluring image of this country that won hearts and minds across the globe. Jazz (and later, Rock) music, sports, and even modernist architecture came to convey a similar type of “soft power.”

It wasn’t all a big band show, however.

The President who issued the “Fourteen Points“, demanding the right to self-determination in Central and Eastern Europe, entrenched (anti-black) racial hiring practices in the federal post office and Treasury Departments. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, Americans of color in most states lived under an apartheid regime, with restrictions on everything from where they could buy a home to whom they could marry.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s sought to vanquish institutional racism. Martin Luther King famously declared that freedom for people of color would constitute the ultimate fulfillment of the American Dream.

However, even King’s lauded non-violent protest marches received tepid public support from white Americans. While civil rights legislation outlawed overt segregation, neighborhood- and school-level segregation remain pervasive in American cities. Police brutality and mass incarceration of persons of color have replaced Jim Crow as a means to repress and control the black and brown underclass.


The last paragraph may seem like a tangent from my previous thread.

But the white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement proved to be the ultimate undoing of America’s 20th-century growth trajectory.

Starting with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, Republican Party politicians capitalized on white grievance to drastically roll back the post-New Deal welfare programs.

Meanwhile, the military arm of the American state grew more powerful and more removed from civilian oversight. In the 75 years following World War II, the US military engaged in more than 220 foreign interventions-all by bypassing Congress’ War Powers’ authority. This does not count the numerous covert operations carried out be US intelligence agencies,-who tampered with elections and assassinated politicians from Italy to Iran.

Throughout the Cold War, America’s martial imperialism left its white herrenvolk unscathed, even while the COINTELPRO program surveilled and harassed Civil Rights.

Following September 11th, however, Congress–in a moment of patriotic zeal–passed the Patriot Act, which gave federal agencies the power to requisition citizens’ business records and wiretap phones with little to no due process. Edward Snowden found that the government had obtained records of every single Verizon customer.

A government that could extensively spy on citizens and militarize its police force could only cobble together a patchwork “universal” health insurance system under a progressive president Obama.

But Tony Stark was a hit in China. Brooklyn’s culinary and creative ferment maintained the Big Apple’s status as the global capital of cool. And Silicon Valley drew the best and brightest from East and South Asia.

Now, even Marvel has stopped filming. The Momofukus and Robertas are shuttered. And with the American economy shut down (and the Trump administration sending hostile signals to immigrants) the talented masses are staying away.

Our time is finally up.

Why the West Ignores East Asia at its Own Peril

The only countries in the world that have effectively contained COVID-19 have been in high-income East Asia. Despite strong travel links and economic ties to Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong staved off the mass infection now afflicting Europe and the US through early deployment of social distancing measures (including public mask-wearing and mandatory quarantine of infected individuals) and travel restrictions. South Korea contained its outbreak “curve”–the worst in the world in February–through extensive testing, followed by contact tracing (through both personal interviews and GPS-based mobile tracking) of positive cases.

The examples are not merely informative but instructive. While infection rates slow in most of Europe and United States, suggesting containment in the near future, removing lock-downs on either side of the Atlantic will be incredibly risky unless leaders follow East Asia’s lead in detecting and isolating infected individuals.

Unfortunately, while both Europe and the US seek to emulate South Korea’s drive-thru testing procedure, much of European and US public opinion seems skeptical about the adoption of mobile contact tracing used in South Korea and Taiwan. A perceived cultural difference pops up repeatedly in the skeptics’ arguments.

For instance, Vox’s Ezra Klein casts doubt on a Harvard University plan to develop a nationwide tracking app (of positive test results) by acknowledging that “while similar efforts have borne fruit in Singapore and South Korea, the US is a very different country, with a more mistrustful, individualistic culture.” A BBC article on the subject contrasts western “liberal democracies” with countries like “China, Singapore and South Korea”, implying that mobile contact tracing is more acceptable in the autocratic “East” than in the democratic “West.”

Its not just mobile contact tracing which encounters this dismissive mindset. Renee C. Wurth, a Public Health Professor at Northwestern University, warns that East Asian societies’ widespread face mask use does not make this an essential strategy for combating COVID-19 in the west: Rather, it is Asia’s “community-oriented cultures,” that are the true key to their success.

By insisting that Asian countries are fundamentally different from the West, these dismissals of Asian policy successes reveal the tenacious persistence of Orientalist stereotypes about East Asia.

Public Health Officials in the West advised against mask-wearing at first. ©Irfan Kahn, Los Angeles Times.

Since the time of Marco Polo, the Western World has perceived East Asia as irredeemably “exotic” and “mysterious.”

The image of the Orient as a threatening and monolithic “Other”–replete with strange foods, secretive rituals and persons who were not quite human–took hold over the centuries. This construct, which post-colonial scholars refer to as Orientalism, reached its zenith at the end of the 19th-century, when Western Powers encroached on East Asia.

Social Scientists developed grand theories, based on ecology (e.g. Marx’ “Oriental Despotism” hypothesis, which held that control of irrigation systems led to stagnant bureaucracies in Eastern polities) or culture (e.g. Confucianism as a cause of China’s decline) to explain Europe’s advancement relative to East Asia. Although objective on the surface, such theories implicitly justified Western hegemony relative to East Asia, and portrayed Asia as an “ontologically-different entity” (in the words of one historian) from the West-the former being fundamentally incomparable to the latter and requiring neither depth or nuance in analysis.

ln popular culture, the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War fueled fears of a “Yellow Peril”-an invasion of Europe by barbaric hordes. In the United States, opponents of Chinese immigration to California spread lurid rumors of Chinese consuming rats and other unsavory foodstuffs.

19th Century Orientalism: Chinese immigrants as innumerable, rat-eating horde vs. the God-fearing virile Euro-American Worker

Early reporting on COVID-19’s origins at a wet market revealed the endurance of Orientalist stereotype of Chinese consumption of exotic foods.

And as Asian countries have emerged at the forefront of global efforts to combat COVID-19, Orientalism lurks beneath the surface of western public opinion’s disregard for their policy successes.

For instance, Wurth’s opinion on the irrelevance East Asian mask-wearing, borrows from the trope that Confucian culture is a determining factor in the region’s mores. Instead of using the concept to explain East Asian stagnation, she touts it as a reason for the region’s advancement. Nevertheless, the concept still renders the region as “foreign,” albeit for the purpose of drawing policy best practices.

Moreover, Wurth, Klein and other writers have tended to describe East Asian countries’ policy success in collective terms, ignoring vast differences in policy and society. Discussing Singapore, a one-party state, and South Korea, a democratic presidential republic, in the same breath makes as little sense as equating the United Kingdom with Franco-era Spain. And yet, the fact that East Asia is not Europe permits such abstraction.

Nuances and details in East Asian policies are also ignored. The Toronto Star quotes an expert saying that South Korean contract tracing would “never work” in a western democracy, ignoring the fact that a) South Korea is a democracy and b) contact tracing app has also raised privacy concerns within South Korea. I have heard similar statements made by Twitter users:

Finally, Atlantic Magazine has published profiles in courage on Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern but none on (South Korean President) Moon Jae-in or (Taiwanese President) Tsai Ing-Wen (the latter has earned a paragraph in an article on female leadership in combating COVID). 

The hard truth is that Westerners still regard even developed Alien countries as alien: Robotic marvels that can earn a plaudit or two but never be seriously emulated or examined.


To be clear, this is not just a media issue (and there are some great articles like this WIRED one on Taiwan). Nor did this problem suddenly reappear with COVID-19. Over the years, I have received strange looks and remarks when I point to Japan as an example for American commuter rail planning.

But now the stakes are much higher.

If we (in the United States and Europe) don’t want to contend with a two-year lockdown or hundreds of thousands of more deaths, we will have to acknowledge some hard truths:

  1. South Korea is the only country in the world to have stamped out a large-scale (1000+) COVID-19 outbreak. There is no excuse for throwing out examples like New Zealand (which instituted a lockdown when there were only 100 cases) or Germany (which-despite mass testing-has over 100,000 cases and 5,000 diseases, with no signs of letting down).
  2. Stamping out COVID demands that Western Countries evaluate South Korea’s (and Taiwan’s and even Vietnam’s) policies in detail and determine how they can legally design and implement such policies.
  3. The belief that the West is the standard-bearer of progress, and therefore has nothing to learn from culturally- or geographically-distinct regions, is no longer true. Its high time we face up.

Babylon Berlin: Our World through the Rear-View Mirror

Binge-watching Netflix seems to be an acceptable pastime for once. Not only do we have more time on our couches (now that we’re not commuting for an hour or going out after work) but we all need to escape the grim reality, at least for a few hours.

Offering plenty of scandal, sex and adrenaline-rushing escapes, Babylon Berlin is a show designed for binge watching, and (for better or worse) ironically foretells our current predicament.

The show is set in Berlin in the “Golden Twenties”, a zeitgeist by both political instability and cultural hedonism and progressivism.

It is a world where cross-dressing nightclub singers moonlight as Soviet-employed assassins. Where nudist lake outings and police massacres of left-wing protesters occur simultaneously. And where a shell-shocked grizzled army veteran produces illicit lewd films.

Violent May Day Rally. Source: Santa Barbara Independent
Nightclub Dancing. Copyright X Filme

Into this melange steps Gereon Rath, a police detective from Cologne who has been temporarily summoned to Berlin under surreptitious circumstances. Although ostensibly working with the vice squad, Rath ends up being drawn into a homicide investigation that unravels a complex web of conspiracies (I haven’t reached the end yet, so I can’t reveal how it unfolds) involving mutinous Reichswehr (army) officers, pro-Trotsky communists, a mafiosi nightclub mogul, a trove of gold and even Rath’s police department colleagues.

Rath and Charlotte Ritter, his partner on the case. Copyright X Filme

The plot and cinematography are so furtively adroit, revealing major backstories and side plots-in pieces-through a glimpse of binoculars or a brief flashback, as to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat. The fact that nearly every character has some fishy doppelganger heightens the suspense.

And yet, the most powerful part of the series is the strange hindsight it offers in our current predicament.

Only a-month-and-a-half ago I was frequenting gay nightclubs on a weekly basis. The West Hollywood nightlife-almost as libertine as Weimar Berlin’s-carried on with full force despite the ominous illness seeping into the country.

Abbey nightclub on February 22, 2018. Courtesy of author.

Like the Berlin of Babylon, our republic was in a precarious state. Politicians routinely flouted democratic norms and connived with foreign powers. Inequality ran rampant. Gun violence was a part of daily life.

But if you were part of the middling urban bourgeoisie, with just enough of a paycheck to indulge in cocktails or pour-over coffee on the weekend, you could rationalize everything away, or forget it even existed.

Until the economy stopped…

Anyone with a basic knowledge of European history knows what will happen next in the Babylon story: the 1929 Stock Market Crash will lead to totalitarianism, which will lead to the bloodiest war in Germany’s history.

We’re past the crash phase now. Which is why watching Babylon arouses such a strong feeling of nostalgia.

Life is short. History is long.

The long road of history. Source: Pexels.com

When will I be able to frequent nightclubs again without the risk of contracting a terrifying illness? Where will our turbulent geopolitics take us?

These thoughts don’t usually linger. I am always too giddy to move on to the next episode.

And even when they do, my feelings ultimately move from despair to contemplation.

One discreet message I pick up from Babylon:

A corrupt society is probably not worth retaining, regardless of its temptations.

If We are Serious about Fighting Climate Change, We should not Bail-out the Airlines

The COVID-19 outbreak has crippled the US airline industry. A precipitous decline in travel demand has forced carriers to cut flights by 40 percent. A temporary national shutdown of air travel may be the only way for the aviation industry to stop hemorraghing money.

In the grandest of (American) corporate traditions, the airlines are now lobbying the federal government for money, a “bail-out” to put it bluntly.

With Democrats and Republicans apparently nearing a deal on the Coronavirus stimulus package, it looks like the airlines’ request will be granted (an exact amount has not been specified yet).

The airlines’ collapse has taken a tremendous economic toll across the country. At Philadelphia International Airport, more than 1,000 workers have been laid off since last Wednesday. A total shutdown would put as many as 750,000 airline employees out of work.

And yet, helping aviation workers is not the same as helping airlines.

Its not just that airlines have squandered the last decade’s profits on stock buybacks and executive bonuses (rather than improving worker pay). Airlines have a hefty carbon footprint.

Air travel is by far the most polluting means of transport. According to the BBC, a short-haul flight emits 154 grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometer, triple the emissions per passenger traveling in a four-person vehicle. Collectively, commercial aviation accounted for 2.4% of global carbon emissions in 2018, more than the sixth-heaviest polluting nation, Germany.

Almost one-quarter of global aviation emissions came from flights originating in the United States (two-thirds of which came from domestic flights).

The Democratic draft bill circulating in the House would require airlines to reduce Carbon emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050–and have the government buy out old, less fuel-efficient jets–as a precondition for $50 billion aid.

Yet with much of the planet having burned the last few years (and countries obligated to limit temperature increases under the Paris Climate Accord), even this target seems to modest.

The airline industry’s failure provides a once-in-a-life-time to go big for the planet. Emulating Greta Thunberg, we can take radical steps to support airline industry workers while phasing out jet-fueled aviation technology once and for all.

The federal government can do this through the following steps:

  1. Let the airlines collapse. The government could potentially buy up the aircraft.
  2. Provide a separate stimulus package for airline industry workers (could also carry over to cruise industry) by paying pre-layoff monthly wages, up to $60-75K per year.
  3. Invest stimulus money in development of a National High-Speed Rail Network.
  4. Also invest in research into sustainable aviation technology (e.g. electric aircraft) and long-distance maritime travel (e.g. hydrofoils).
  5. Give airline workers priority in hiring for new high-speed rail or sustainable long-distance air/sea travel services.
Navy Hydrofoil or Hovercraft. Hydrofoils “float” above the water, reducing drag and increasing speeds relative to conventional boats.

When the economy recovers, companies might regroup, or the government could (if it bought up aircraft) establish its own airline. But an interconnected high-speed rail network would reduce air travel demand on short-haul domestic routes, where air travel is the least carbon efficient. Airlines would be compelled to focus on long-haul international routes, whose higher fuel costs would increase the incentive to develop sustainable technology.

Lockdown Reads

With the country on shutdown for the next few weeks or more, this blog is shifting gears a bit. I am going to publish two series of articles (in weekly episodic installments). The first, Viral Nation, discusses how our country and social norms got us into this clusterf*#k (re: pandemic), and what we can learn for dealing with future crises. The second, HomeBar, will introduce drinks you can make (with ingredients easily available!) while locked up at home. Stay tuned for new articles:)

And remember. At Entrepot, no topic is off the table (provide I have the time and means to research).

So….let me know if you have any questions or ideas!

Universal Basic Income to the Rescue?

One of the more memorable aspects of this Democratic presdential primary cycle was Andrew Yang’s championing of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). The idea that every adult in the US should receive a 1,000$ a month check from the government drew a cult-like following to the candidate.

The UBI, as a permanent mechanism, has gained both admiration and criticism from persons across the political spectrum. 

I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on the use of UBI as a broad social welfare mechanism (though I would consider myself on the “Yes” side). But in the public health emergency we are currently experiencing, a check from the government with no strings attached is essential for the health and welfare of the nation. 

Restaurants closed in Rome due to COVID 19 Outbreak. Source SkyNews

As “social distancing” measures become more widespread, many companies and governments will likely have to close their facilities. 

While some professional jobs (e.g. law, government) can be conducted remotely-to a certain extent-, many restaurant, retail and service jobs cannot. Already, some Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley have had to close doors because of decreased foot traffic driven by fears of the virus. Once more restaurants begin to follow suit, an untold number of cooks, busboys and other staff will be left jobless. 

Many small business owners will have to close with losses, with no quick, easy route to recoup them (you can’t open another store or restaurant when people aren’t going anywhere). 

Even professional firms may eventually have to close doors if clientele slow for a long time.

The sad irony is that many workers’ primary source of revenue will dry up just when their medical expenses start to mount.

Taking a step back, this could have happened at any time. By this I don’t mean coronavirus, specifically, but a shock to the economy caused by a freak disaster be it a wildfire, hurricane, earthquake or illness. 

Our country should have an rainy-day fund, by which citizens contribute revenue in “good times” to ensure their well-being in the “bad”.

Every year, we would pay slightly more in taxes (with the amount varying based on income) to contribute money to the fund. When an emergency strikes, the money would be returned to the persons affected in monthly deposits, sufficient for them to live decently. Personally, I think the amount returned should start off higher than what UBI proposals call for (at 3,000$ a month: which is equal to the living wage in a high-cost state like CA)-for those in the lowest income bracket-and decrease inversely to the income bracket and assets of the recipient. 

Call it Emergency Relief (ER).

ER would relieve Americans of the added burden of economic anxiety (when crises occur). It would allow American workers and employers to take all steps necessary to combat crises. And it would provide a literal safety net, ensuring that the level of protection one receives in emergencies and disasters does not depend on his or her income. 

Democracy in a Time of Crisis

The Chinese government’s draconian response to the coronavirus outbreak begs a question. Do authoritarian regimes have an advantage, relative to democracies, in responding to crises?

A brief refresher on democracy. A form of government “in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)   

A brief refresher on the Coronavirus quarantine. Following the Coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government imposed a quarantine that severely restricts travel into and out of an area with a population the size of California. 

Chinese Police with Face Masks. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In an interview with Scientific American, NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan upheld the measure as necessary for containing the spread of the disease. In addition, he noted the legal hurdles that might prevent such a measure in the United States. 

“But quarantining an entire large city—or multiple cities—is not an approach that would work in many other places. You’re not going to quarantine the city of New York, ever,” Caplan argues, noting that U.S. authorities could not even effectively enforce a quarantine imposed on one nurse who returned to the country after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone in 2014. “ 

The last sentence refers to the quarantine attempted on Kari Hickox. Upon her return to the states from West Africa, where she had treated Ebola patients, Hickox was quarantined for three days in New Jersey before being permitted to return to Maine. The Maine authorities tried to extend Hickox’ quarantine but Hickox took legal action and won.  

(Hickox was neither infected with Ebola nor showed any symptoms).

There aren’t many other recent examples of an industrialized democracy dealing with a pandemic (though the US imposed a fair number of quarantines in the 19th-century: more on this later). 

However, democratic systems have stumbled in confronting the multitude of crises currently facing humanity. 

Take climate change. In the United States, older, more conservative constituencies support politicians who deny its very existence despite the numerous signs that it is indeed happening.

Even lefties in the US and Europe who claim to care about climate change are loath to take measures to restrict vehicle travel (e.g. ending parking minimums, raising gas taxes) that would actually make a dent in emissions. 

Contentious Hearing on a Road Diet in Los Angeles. “Road Diets”, which reallocate road space from cars to transit and non-motorized travel, have faced fierce opposition on Los Angeles’ west side. Source: Argonaut

What’s happening here? 

In a government where politicians are responsive to the people, prudent action can be hampered by imperfect information, groupthink (i.e. voting based on social identity rather than substantive issues), and lack of political knowledge. Differing levels of political participation not only take the “democratic” out of democracy (as practiced) but allow well-connected minorities to hamper actions that would benefit the populace at large.

And yet, China’s response to the Coronavirus shows that authoritarian systems, in all likelihood, do a worse job of handling crises.

In the first days of the outbreak, the Wuhan provincial government dragged its feet, going so far as to threaten a doctor who reported the first cases of the virus. 

Such misinformation may reflect authoritarian governments’ prioritization of (the facade of) stability over public welfare. They can solidify legitimacy this way (and always have a golden escape parachute in case things get out of control).

In fact, the Chinese government is already sending people back to work, despite acknowledging that the virus is still an issue.

Furthermore, the quarantine may not actually have been the most effective measure. By concentrating persons (both healthy and sick) in a disease-ridden area, it could end up increasing the infection rate in these areas. Restrictions on the flow of goods into and out of quarantine areas create shortages in medicines those infected desperately need. Democratic oversight on this policy would have probably warranted consideration of these issues.

Point being, democracies have stronger incentives and improved feed-back mechanisms for protecting public well-being in times of crisis. How can democracies respond to voters without being beholden to voters’ imperfections, or to the narrow interests of a loud minority?

I wonder how improving the spread of knowledge from expert sources can better inform voters (something social media could aid, if willing to referee). Bringing more people into the democratic process dampens interest group politics, if the focus is on achieving outcomes rather than fighting battles.

Women’s March, January 2017.

Thoughts?

The Racist Hysteria over Chinese “Wet” Markets

Update (April 13, 2020): Since I wrote this article back in January, COVID-19 has spread to every corner of the globe. It has killed more than 100,000 people and sickened millions, while tanking the global economy. While most of the public’s attention has shifted away from the virus’s origin story, many of the dynamics I highlight in my article still hold true:

  1. We still don’t have definitive proof that the virus originated in the Huanan Seafood “Wet” Market. It most likely came from bats, but exactly how and when it spread to humans is still unclear.
  2. The belief that the pandemic started due to the butchering or consumption of “exotic” animals at a Wet Market, fuels anti-asian hate crimes.
  3. China is permanently banning the illegal wildlife trade (much of which occurs outside of a typical wet market). However, eliminating wet markets themselves would upend traditional food ways (providing the primary means of selling food for rural residents). In regards to the wildlife ban, there could be issues with compensating farmers and effectively enforcing the ban. Without either of these, the law foster the proliferation of more dangerous underground activity.
  4. It is also true that Chinese Medicine corporations and the Chinese Forestry Department provide institutional support for the wildlife trade. Thus the breeding and trading of wildlife exceeds the issue of wet markets and consumption of certain species.
  5. The trading and breeding of multiple species of wildlife does carry grave public health risks, which I don’t intend to downplay here.
  6. Anthony Bourdain appreciated the energy and dynamism of wet markets. I wish he were still around to educate the public.

The coronavirus outbreak is exposing America’s deep-rooted underbelly of anti-Asian racism. From teasing on the playground to stigmatization at the shopping mall, (many) Americans’ reaction to the outbreak reveals the extent to which they conceive of Chinese, like myself, as a monolith-devoid of individual humanity. 

Perhaps the most disgraceful instance of racial hysterics has been the media’s portrayal of China’s live-animal (or “wet”) markets as an incubator of disease.

In China, a “wet market” denotes an ad hoc market where fresh meat and produce, rather than “dry” packaged goods, are sold. Because of the Chinese preference for freshly-slaughtered meat, animals are often displayed alive and butchered upon purchase.

Chickens for sale at a market in Xining, China. Source: Flickr (Labeled for reuse).

Think of them like a cross between a farmer’s market and a petting zoo.

The coronavirus outbreak may have originated in the Huanan Seafood Market, a wet market in Wuhan. Since the outbreak, the American mass media have ominously portrayed these markets as alien and unsanitary.

A New York Times Article depicts China’s “Omnivorous Markets” (as if their customers were animal rather than human!) as purveyors of “unusual fare, including live snakes, turtles and cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats…” The article notes that many blame the markets’ “culinary adventurism” for the epidemic.

Bloomberg News’ Headline demonizes wet markets as a “Breeding Ground” for viruses. The body text of the article highlights the fact that “shoppers mingle in narrow spaces with everything from live poultry to snakes” in the markets as “a key reason” for their culpability in spreading disease.

The New York Post‘s Paula Froelich does not even mince words in her writing. These “filthy markets” boast a “fetid stench,” she writes (based on experiences in unnamed third-world locations), akin to “the sweet and nauseating smell of death.”

Sensational headline, “exotic” imagery

The supposedly unsavory character of the wet markets leads Froelich to assert what the other authors imply: that the wet markets are a public health risk and should, therefore, be shut down for good. 

Although this argument sounds logical on the surface, the lurid portrayal on which it relies draws on racially-motivated stereotypes about Chinese cuisine. 

During the 19th-century, Chinese immigrants to America (who began arriving in the country during the California Gold Rush) encountered vicious discrimination from the country’s White majority. One area in which prejudice manifested was food

This 19th-century poster shows Uncle Sam as a “Magic Washer”, sanitizing America by kicking out the “Dirty Chinaman”

White citizens decried the Chinatowns of western cities as “nuisances” because of the perceived “stench” emanating from their kitchens. White politicians regarded Chinese “coolies” as inferior based on their preference for rice over beef. And white newspapers obsessed over Chinese consumption of “unusual” animals like rats. 

Although times have changed and sushi, larb and dim sum can now command Michelin stars, questions Asian-Americans receive about eating “dog” and stigmas around the smell of kimchi show that the “othering” of Asian food (and people) is very real. Sub-consciously or not, the media’s portrayal of live animal markets as an incubator for pandemics plays into this.

Moreover, the media’s blame of wet markets for the Coronavirus epidemic grossly oversimplifies the story. It is true that the Coronavirus likely originated in bats and, therefore, infected humans via an animal carrier. However, scientists have not affirmatively established the Huanan market as the site of the disease’s transmission. A study in the esteemed Lancet medical journal found that thirteen of the 41 initial Coronavirus cases were not linked to the market.

____________________________________

Suppose, however, that China’s wet markets do transmit the disease? Should we accept the media’s premise that the Chinese government should shut down the markets? 

To me, it seems cynical at best to promote a crackdown on mom-and-pop enterprises by an authoritarian regime not hesitant to employ brutality. Many of the wild animal sales in “wet markets” sustain small farmers who would otherwise be decimated by big agribusiness. 

Furthermore, a ban on wet markets or the sale of wild animals in China may prove ineffective. When the Chinese government banned the sale of certain wildlife following the SARS epidemic in 2002, trade in the outlawed specimens migrated to the black market. Unregulated and invisible to health authorities, black market operations are less likely to follow healthy or sustainable practices.

Finally, suppose a ban on “wet” markets is effective. The Chinese have switched from shopping for freshly-slaughtered (domesticated and wild) animals at a local “wet” market to buying packaged meats, from the standard cow-pig-chicken trifecta of domesticated animals, at Walmart or Costco. 

Industrial Poultry Slaughterhouse in Florida (Source: Wikimedia)

In this future scenario, meat has to be trucked for a longer distance or flown in, greatly increasing the greenhouse gas emissions from food transport. Likewise, the industrial farms and slaughterhouses involved in meat production release far more carbon emissions than the family farms that once supplied wet markets. Increased consumption of beef in China requires expanding pastureland for grazing and feed growing, destroying forest habitats across the globe. 

Overall, the transition from wet market to packaged meat consumption in China could result in a far less sustainable environmental outcome, compared to the status quo.

Indeed, the contribution of industrial meat processing to Climate Change has become a favored marketing device of vegan and vegetarian advocates these days.

So, rather than castigate wet markets, why not accept them as the dynamic enterprises they are, while promoting sanitation measures at the markets that can tame the risk of outbreaks. 

And rather than gag at the Chinese consumption of fresh, wild animals-we should admire the Chinese willingness to consume animals that require less resource-intensive agriculture.