It is no longer a secret. The West, on the whole, has underestimated the coronavirus – covid-19. It is not just Ursula Von der Leyen, the President of the EU Commission who admitted this. According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, there was ‘alarming levels of inaction’. Others, for example Dr Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet medical journal, also highlighted that the ‘growing global pandemic’ was ignored by those in power and that we did not take the threat posed by the coronavirus seriously early on despite the warnings from China.
The first warnings came in late December 2019 when China alerted the WHO. Chinese scientists as early as January 11th 2020 revealed the draft genome of the virus to the world’s science community. As flagged up by Dr Horton, Professor Joseph Wu and colleagues set out the warnings in the Lancet on Jan 31st, 2020: ‘On the present trajectory, 2019-nCoV could be about to become a global epidemic…for health protection within China and internationally…preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies, and the necessary human resources to deal with the consequences of a global outbreak of this magnitude.’ Yet the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was still joking about how he was shaking the hands of patients with coronavirus in NHS hospitals as late as 3 March 2020, whilst the US President Trump claimed that the public health warnings were a conspiracy against him.
Moreover, when we did start taking the threat of corona more seriously, some countries did not implement the advice and techniques which came from the East and the WHO. Rich nations such as the US and the UK initially ignored this advice. The UK refused to implement social distancing measures such as shutting schools and banning public gatherings; we were told to keep calm, carry on and wash our hands singing jolly songs. The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance outlined that the UK strategy was to infect 60% of the UK’s total population (66 million) in order to build tolerance. With a death rate of 1% this could have led to 400 thousand deaths in the UK.
This ‘herd immunity’ strategy was later aptly described as epidemiological neoliberalism, drawing a comparison between neoliberalism’s faith in unregulated markets and in unregulated epidemics. Since then, the UK government’s approach mercifully shifted ‘following expertise and scientific evidence’. In fact ‘science had been the same since January’; it was not the science which had changed, but the UK government’s strategy. One could give the UK government the benefit of doubt: we know that paradoxically if risks are taken seriously and reduced, governments are accused of ‘scaremongering’; if they do not intervene, they are accused of inaction. Yet underestimating the coronavirus, and the delay in implementing social distancing measures given the explicit scientific warnings were indeed complacent. Was it due to incompetence? Was it lack of due care? Was it due to ideology? The UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team, that is the ‘nudge unit’, amongst others, is certainly under fire for delaying the UK’s response.
Yet I argue that there is more to the story and ask: Would those who govern us in the UK have been as laissez-faire if the virus had been identified in the US and it was the US government and scientists who made those recommendations? Would those who rule the UK have refused to treat it as having not much bearing on the UK if it came from somewhere closer, that is closer to heart? Would the UK have even considered herd immunity if it did not think we would be more competent than ‘southern Europeans’ in dealing with it, forgetting that the UK has only ‘about half the capacity of critical care beds per capita [as Italy]’? Would we have tolerated the view that ‘we’ were measured and reasonable unlike the authoritarian regimes of the East who took draconian measures? Would our media have had such a blindspot if the advice was not coming from the East? Would they have pedalled the view that we were different from authoritarian countries and their way of dealing with it because we were the democratic West, forgetting that not all those in Asia who were successful in dealing with this virus were ‘authoritarian’? Would the US newspapers have remembered that South Korea has a much better position in the democracy index than the US? Would we have realised that contact tracing has always been an essential aspect of public health in the world, including the UK and thus not something specific to the ‘authoritarian East’? In summary: Would the West have been as slow to act if the virus was not ‘othered’? Would the West have ignored the advice if it was not coming from countries it deemed as inferior?
This is not to say Asian countries have got this fully sussed out. The provincial officials in China have faced criticism in their initial dealings with the crisis. Also, we still do not know how successful the measures taken in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and others will turn out to be in the long run. At least in the short -medium term, their method of rigorous testing, distancing and contact tracing is working well as they are keeping new cases low and their death numbers are dwindling. This, they achieved, despite having huge populations to deal with (Wuhan region’s population is 60 million alone), having had much less warning than us, together with a high population density. Given their serious warnings, it is surprising that the UK government did not give a serious consideration to their approaches and listened to their explicit cautions from January 2020. Even today, the approach towards wearing face masks in the West is puzzling: ‘imperfect protection does not mean useless’.
We know from social scientific research on risk that expert judgements as well as lay judgements of risk are affected, amongst others, by gender, race, political worldviews, emotion, and trust. For example, risks are judged as higher by women than by men and racial differences in risk perception exist (Palmer 2003). White males in general have lower risk perception compared with not only men and women from ethnic minorities but also white women and that 30% of white males in the population are found to judge risks as very low (Finucane et al 2000). Research also shows that such differences are not necessarily attributable to differences in education and knowledge of science and technology either. Barke et al 1997 showed that male scientists see risks from nuclear technologies as lower than female scientists. The 30% of the white male population with very low risk perception were found to be wealthier, better educated and politically more conservative and anti-egalitarian (Flynn et al. 1994). There is a close relationship between political worldviews, the social position and power one holds in society, and what people see as risky and whom they listen on how to approach that risk.
Moreover, we know that people respond to risks as cultural groups, and not necessarily as individuals calculating risk and benefit (Douglas 2012). Our responses to risks can also be non-reflexive; they can be shaped by emotions, morals, trust and aesthetics – just consider cosmetic surgery (Lash 1993; Mello 2012). What we deem as risky is social; and is closely bound up with whom we see as capable and responsible for solving it. Thus what we see as risky and how to approach that risk also go hand in hand. That we listen to risk judgments and solutions of certain groups (or nations in this case) whilst ignoring others is evident. I argue that a serious examination of Western-centric attitudes, and their impact on risk judgements should also be a central aspect of social scientific research on risk.
That there is something special and distinct about Europe/the West, the ‘miracle’ view of Europe/West (Bhambra 2007; Sayyid 1997) are inextricably intertwined with othering views of the non-West. Such perceptions and views have contributed to narrow understanding of not just the West, but also the West’s understanding of ‘the Rest’. We need an examination of the extent to which such views and assumptions about the ‘West’ and ‘the Rest’ have come to shape the UK government’s reactions to the risks posed by the coronavirus. We need to consider seriously if and how such attitudes might have contributed to the British governments’ and government scientists’ delayed, if not reluctant and non-existent, uptake of advice from China and South Korea in the first few months of this pandemic. We also need to evaluate if and how the UK government’s inability and unwillingness to learn from and listen to those it deems inferior went hand in hand with its epidemiological neoliberalism. The coronavirus pandemic should thus open up the risk research in social sciences by bringing to the fore that Western-centric attitudes, in their refusal and reluctance to take advice from ‘the Rest’, can also shape Western responses to risk. Even worse, they can even operate against the West.
Ipek Demir is Associate Professor in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds.