Many are talking about vaccine nationalism these days, fearing that some countries are involved in a race to access as many vaccines as possible. Disappointing, of course, but highly predictable. Vaccines are viewed by the entire Western world as our collective portal to some sort of normalcy. The World Health Organization (WHO) has rightly voiced its concerns about vaccine hoarding.
Meanwhile, the same global agency sent a team to examine the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. The first visits were made this week to a food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where many believe is the outbreak site of the global pandemic. While the investigation is not expected to produce much evidence about the origin of the pandemic, at least not in its early stages, China is demonstrating how well its propaganda machine works.
At the heart of the pandemic, as the world sees Wuhan as the site of origin or ground zero, China has adopted a very different discourse. For months now, the Chinese government has released reports on imported food and products contaminated with COVID-19. Last summer, Beijing accused Brazil of exporting products contaminated with COVID-19. A sample of frozen chicken wings imported from Brazil tested positive in the city of Shenzhen in southern China. This happened in August and the announcement was the latest in a series of reports of contaminated imported food products.
Again, in the fall, Beijing urged Chinese companies to halt imports of frozen products from countries hard hit by the pandemic, as fears continued to mount over the possibility of transmission through food packaging. According to Chinese authorities, the first local asymptomatic infections were detected when a few port workers in Qingdao City, responsible for unloading frozen seafood, tested positive for COVID-19. China keeps suggesting that the country has been and still is a victim of imported contaminated frozen foods. This, even though the science about the virus is now more developed than it was 11 months ago, as is knowledge about its ability to survive. Indeed, contamination through food supply chains has been declared highly unlikely. In fact, there has not been a single known case since the start of the pandemic so far, with the exception, of course, of China.
China does play the fear card, and has done so successfully. Ever since China was hit by the melamine-tainted milk scandal in 2008, consumers in the country have been wary of the safety of their domestic foods. At the time, the country was hosting the Beijing Olympics and the government was reluctant to disclose anything, not wanting any distractions. In short, the tactic then chosen was concealment. Today, in the midst of a pandemic, China has clearly chosen nationalism in food security risk management. China tries to present itself as the one that protects its citizens from evil. The pandemic is thus used and presented as a threat against the Chinese people.
According to some reports, it seems to work. The emphasis on discriminating against imported food has shifted to retail. Many food retailers in China now separate imported products from domestic products. Buyers will see separate sections for imported products, to protect them from the threat of the unknown. In this way, China, one of the most active trading nations in the world, now allows consumers to mitigate their own risks when shopping for their food at retail.
The pandemic has changed many rules that were previously in place, including the way regulators manage perceived food safety risks. However, make no mistake: the Chinese propaganda machine is in full swing. As for the investigation led by the WHO, it will be nothing more than a witch hunt. With the outbreak having started over a year ago, the likelihood of collecting key samples and conducting genetic epidemiological studies will be almost zero. Most of the critical evidence is probably gone, whether or not this was the result of deliberate action.
China allowed the visit to Wuhan for one reason and only one. It’s not about the virus or figuring out how it all started. It’s about how China is viewed and its attempt to change the story behind the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. Science may not be on China’s side. But the only thing we have learned so far, during this pandemic, is that the science related to the virus has been, for the most part, politicized. And that’s what China is doing.