The unscientific surmise that COVID-19 was spread by Wuhan lab is racist
By Josef Gregory Mahoney  ·  2021-08-23  ·   Source: NO.34 AUGUST 26, 2021

People attend an anti-Asian hate parade on April 4, New York, the United States, demanding the government take measures to combat racial discrimination and hate crimes against Asians (XINHUA)

The "lab leak lie" is racist. To be clear, the unscientific surmise that COVID-19 was spread intentionally or unintentionally by a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan is racist. From the beginning, this lie was an expression of dog-whistle politics, one that has exploited longstanding racial stereotypes, and that has in turn deepened anti-Asian racism in many countries around the world.

Stoking the fires

The fact that the Donald Trump administration promoted the lab leak lie in 2020 is not surprising. Before the outbreak, Trump had already demonized Democrats and centrists in his own party. He'd demonized black Americans resisting police brutality. He'd demonized American allies. He'd demonized people from developing countries. He'd demonized immigrants and Latinx, even those who were American citizens. And above all he'd demonized China—its economy, its technologies, and above all its political system. All of this played well to his political base—disaffected working class whites who wanted to blame someone for their falling fortunes.

So after the virus was first recognized in Wuhan, after it spread globally, it was only a matter of time before Trump started calling it the "China virus." It was only a matter of time before the white men in Washington completely lost control of containment efforts. Having failed to contain the virus, having failed in their larger strategic ambition to contain China, these two failures intersected.

In fact, the sharp upticks in anti-Asian violence that followed in the U.S., while connected to COVID-19 frustrations specifically and worries about China generally, also coincided with growing racial disharmony in the U.S. affecting everyone, especially blacks and Latinx.

This is to say, while the racism of Trump's responses to COVID-19 targeted China due to his frustrations with China's rise and America's decline and the inverse relationship between Beijing's increasing governance capacity and the opposite in Washington (as respective responses to the pandemic made clear), his racism on the outbreak's possible origin was completely consistent with his racist policymaking across the board, and the multitude of other lies he told to advance his racist agenda.

In fact, there was never anything original, forward-thinking, or particularly capable about Trump's politics. He was always backwards-looking and pandering to the grossest instincts of white-male-American exceptionalism. His politics was always a retrograde projection of white male racial superiority, which Trump himself personified unabashedly.

And it's in this context that we must recall that whatever violence Asians faced as a result of Trump's approaches, the greater damage was to the American people generally, with more than 620,000 dead and still counting, and the fact that blacks and Latinx were impacted disproportionately by the virus, health wise, economically, educationally, and so on. It's also in this context that we should recall his abandonment of the World Health Organization and his America-first approaches to global containment efforts, which likewise hurt people everywhere, most especially people of color and those in developing countries.

There will be those who might take a more moderate description. Is it not the case that he signed criminal justice reforms that benefited black Americans long victimized by institutional and systemic racism in the legal system? Sure, but this was a bipartisan effort, one that was more than offset by his none-too-subtle nods to white supremacists, anti-integration efforts in white suburbs, attacks on Black Lives Matter, and unrelenting efforts to limit minority voting and census counts.

Is it not the case that black unemployment decreased during his time in office? Sure, but most economists attribute this to efforts started by Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama. And anyway, Trump's economy was a house of cards, fueled by unsustainable interest rates, irresponsible tax cuts, and massive government spending—all of which came crashing down in 2020, with minority unemployment and deaths sharply rising due to COVID-19.

Trump's gone but racism remains

I've written elsewhere about the lab leak lie being thoroughly unscientific. In response, I've been confronted numerous times in social media with an article published by Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (2021) that many around the world have taken as an impartial, scientific argument for the likelihood of the lab leak. There are three fundamental problems with Wade's piece.

First, and most importantly, are concerns that Wade is a racist. This concern predates the pandemic, stemming from his book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (2014), which argued that there is a genetic basis for racial superiority. Wade himself is not a scientist, and the work was widely condemned by scientists for its gross misrepresentations of scientific evidence and for pandering to racist fantasies.

Second, Wade's article on the outbreak has also been condemned by leading scientists. Again he's been accused of misrepresenting scientific facts, with his work being described as nothing more than a conspiracy theory.

Third, even when we account for the first two problems, which most should take as fatal for his argument, the final problem is that he uses inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is not the gold standard of science—it's speculative and requires significant leaps of faith. Here are some common, textbook examples of inductive reasoning: 1) "There are many coins in a bag. I pull one out. It's a penny. I pull another out. It's also a penny. Therefore, all the coins in the bag are pennies." 2) "Most of our snowstorms come from the north. It's starting to snow. This snowstorm must be coming from the north."

Wade's use of inductive reasons is not surprising: It's often the handmaiden of racists and conspiracy theorists.

A recent report published by the Republican minority members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives also "concluded" that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab. Like Wade, the report relied on inductive reasoning, and it ignored findings that indicate the extreme unlikelihood if not impossibility of COVID-19 coming from any laboratory. It likewise was published ahead of an article in The Lancet, one of the world's leading public health journals that shows the virus was already active in Italy during summer 2019, months before it was recognized and before the crisis in Wuhan.

It should also be noted that the lead Republican on the report, Michael T. McCaul (Texas), by some estimates the richest member of Congress, was an ardent supporter of Trump and especially his policies against China. He also supported Trump leaving the Paris Agreement and opposed Joe Biden returning to it. He supported Trump's policies to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and he has been a strong advocate of the ongoing efforts to limit voting rights in Texas, which many have rightfully viewed as aiming to restrict minority votes. Is he a racist, is he anti-science? Perhaps.

It is not my intent here to resort to ad hominem attacks on Trump, Wade or McCaul. Perhaps they are racists and intentionally promote a racist agenda. Perhaps they are simply following other forms of self-interest and these coincide with racism, insomuch as wealthy, politically entrenched, white interests often do. But when they are promoted and cited by others who promote the lab leak lie, they are directly responsible for racist propaganda. And on this point, the facts speak for themselves, and one doesn't need to resort to conspiracy theories or inductive reasoning to see the truth behind their lies.

(Print Edition Title: The 'Lab Leak Lie' Is Racist) 

The author is a professor of politics at the East China Normal University in Shanghai

Copyedited by Ryan Perkins

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com


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