Category Archives: Current Affairs

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.

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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.