As survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp mark the 75th anniversary of their liberation by appealing for people to remember the perils of indifference, the Wuhan coronavirus is set to test multicultural cohesiveness in a way that has not been tested since World War II.
The European Day for Remembrance of the Holocaust is 27th of January, the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. This year the commemoration was especially poignant – not just because it marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz survivors – but because many of those survivors spoke up about concerns about humanity forgetting the lessons that their hellish experience, at the hands of the Nazis, delivered the world.
During the Holocaust 6 million Jews were slaughtered. At Auschwitz 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered.
More than hate, the Holocaust survivors feared indifference because we know that in any large grouping of people the number of people who will be racist to the point of hate will be minor. It is the indifference by others to xenophobia and prejudice which allows the haters to rise up and become powerful.
In my own country of Australia the events of the Holocaust seem a world away, and most contemporary Australians would consider it largely irrelevant to our culture. However, Australians have a long history of indifference to racism.
The first, and thus longest lasting form, of racism is towards the Indigenous Aboriginal peoples, which started soon after colonisation (better described “invasion”?) even though the leaders of the new colony were surprisingly enlightened and in many ways had a higher regard for the Aboriginals than certainly the convicts that they were charged with keeping incarcerated.
In the early stages of the colonies there grew a virulent racism against Indians and Chinese, which evolved into formal legislation known as the White Australia policy which remained in place until the 1970s (Lockwood, R. “British Imperial Influences in the Foundation of the White Australia Policy.” Labour History, no. 7, 1964, pp. 23–33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27507761. accessed 18 October 2019]. As brilliantly articulated by Tim Watts (2019) in “The Golden Country: Australia’s changing identity”, now over 40 years since the formal extinguishing of the White Australia Policy, there remains a great degree of indifference to Asian Australians.
The waves of Asian immigrants over those 40 years, initially mainly from conflicts in Vietnam and Sri Lanka and elsewhere, and more recently from China and India, has coincided with an increase in conspicuous ethno-nationalistic racism.
Moreover, even though surveys consistently show that the great majority of Australians object to racism and consider it an issue of import – highlighting on the one hand that there is a widespread perception that it is prevalent in society, and on the other hand that the great majority are concerned enough about that to consider it a problem – those same surveys suggest that indifference is highly prevalent.
For example, while the 2019 Australia Talks Survey conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation found that 75% of Australians considered racism a problem, 54% considered immigration a problem.
Moreover, Watts (2019) did an excellent job of describing the multitude of ways in which conscious and subconscious biases and prejudices pervade all aspects of Australian society. In workplaces we are only now coming to grips with the impact of the Bamboo ceiling on crushing the aspirations of hard, smart working Asian Australians, and on how that is having a deleterious affect on business innovation and productivity.
It is for this reason that I believe very strongly that quotas are necessary to bring about sustainably diverse workplaces in Australia.
Australian politicians have had an unfortunate habit of playing on this indifference and latent xenophobia to garner political support, and even though the 70s marked the highpoint in bipartisan support against racial discrimination, since the emergence in the 90s of Hansonism and the global success of populist parties overt indifference to xenophobia has been too enticing for those on the right side of politics to ignore.
In pandering to these xenophobic elements their divisive views have been given legitimacy and social cohesiveness in multicultural Australia has been setback significantly.
In a “former life” I was a research scientist specialising in disease of aquatic animals. I had a special interest in viruses and carried out some basic virological research on a few novel viruses that I discovered.
So to preface what I am about to say, I would describe myself as knowing much more than the average person about microbiology and virology, but much, much less than a cutting edge contemporary virologist like Shi Zhengli who is based in Wuhan and has been conducting research on these coronaviruses for the past 15 years including leading the research team responding to the current oubreak.
I mention Zhengli because I know her. She did her PhD in the laboratory of the brilliant and legendary invertebrate virologist Jean-Robert (JR) Bonami in Montepellier, France, where I worked for a year, and I visited her in Wuhan many years ago. Zhengli was also kind to list me as a co-author on a paper published soon after I had retired from scientific research. Zhengli is a wonderful person and researcher of the highest quality and when I learned that she was intimately involved with the response to this outbreak I immediately felt better about the situation.
Evenso, I have great concerns for the implications of this outbreak. To be clear, in no way am I suggesting that I am an expert – I am no longer even an expert on crustacean diseases even though a decade and half ago I was one of the global experts. And I have not spoken with Zhengli in many years so I have no special information. These are my own views which are based on common sense as much as anything else.
I recall in the early 90s reading about the Ebola virus. People do not realise it, but for a virus it is massive and it is scary looking! I commented to a friend that it is so large it would probably feel like receiving an injection when it entered cells to replicate.
The thing about Ebola virus is that while it is deadly, it is not highly transmissible. It is spread by exposure to blood or other bodily fluids of a seriously ill person. While in poor countries with limited and basic medical facilities it can spread and cause some deaths it does not present a serious threat to humanity as modern biosecurity protocols can limit its spread.
Ebola gets media attention because of the high mortality rate and because the symptoms are so severe including haemorrhage and ultimately bleeding from orifices.
The really concerning diseases from a whole of humanity standpoint are those that are highly transmissible, have a reasonably long incubation period where the infected person is asymptomatic (so the infection is undetected) but is transmitting the infection to others, and which has a reasonably high mortality rate (ie. a reasonably high proportion of people who contract the infection die).
The information presented by the WHO on incubation period and asymptomatic transmission confirms that Wuhan coronavirus presents those first two characteristics.
These characteristics combined make a disease difficult to contain and thus eradicate in its early stages, without need of a vaccination program which will take time to develop and administer widely.
At the time of writing the rate of increase in the total number of cases, the proportion of which are serious and very serious, and the number of mortalities, is indicative of a virus that is capable of rapid human to human spread in populations. It will be some time yet before it is fully understood how much of this is due to the ramp up in diagnostic capacity and public health response – i.e. some of this apparent hyperbolic increase in the number of cases may be due to increased diagnosis. If diagnostic capacity reaches a steady state with virus spread, in part due to biosecurity measures taken, then we may see the apparent hyperbolic spread become more linear and then decelerate. However, if the actual spread remains hyperbolic then diagnostic capacity might never catch up.
The mortality and morbidity (what proportion of people become ill and to what extent) rates will not be completely understood for some time. Underlying health status of populations and other factors will play a part.
If the virus becomes pandemic quickly, then it will be the mortality and morbidity rate that determines the full cost to humanity.
With what is already public knowledge with regards the two week incubation period and asymptomatic transmission, I very much suspect that the WHO and the major countries are working on an assumption that there is a high likelihood that the Wuhan coronavirus will not be contained within China and that it will spread in Asia. Though I, too, am impressed by the response by the Chinese authorities and scientific community, early indications of the characteristics of this virus make it extremely difficult to contain.
I suspect that in the weeks ahead it will soon become clear that the virus has escaped the biosecurity net into wider China and into nearby Asian countries, especially the lesser developed countries which have less capability to respond and contain the virus.
One of the complicating factors is that it is still winter in the Northern hemisphere so it is perfectly normal that cold and flu viruses will be circulating, and so there will be no way that any country – and especially not the developing countries – will have the capability to isolate any and every sick person until they are tested and cleared.
Also significant is that we are talking about many poor people here who are not fortunate to enjoy a standard of living which affords them the best possible underlying health status. Moreover, these people have no social safety network, usually have tenuous employment earning low wages, and have little or no savings to draw on during a health scare. Thus these people will have little choice but to continue working rather than subject themselves to self-imposed isolation.
At this stage, what I believe that the authorities are really working on is slowing the spread of the virus. Of course officials are not going to admit to this because they do not want to panic populations and create conditions which stretch (already stretched) social cohesion.
For those in the northern hemisphere there is a factor which will be supportive in those efforts. With the outbreak occurring at around the midpoint of winter, within another 10 weeks the most favourable conditions for respiratory viruses to spread will subside which will likely naturally slow the spread of the virus (at least compared to what it would be if conditions remained cooler).
Pharmaceutical companies will have around 6 months to swing into action and develop an effective vaccine, produce it in significant volumes, and administer it broadly in the large population centres in the northern hemisphere. My understanding is that, at this stage, there is no reason to believe that this would be problematic as it was with HIV (because of its unique characteristics).
Writing in Australia, in the southern hemisphere, the outlook is somewhat more frightening if I am correct in my analysis that the virus will not be eradicated this northern hemisphere winter. I would be unsurprised if more draconian measures were introduced in Australia than elsewhere in an attempt to prevent its introduction as we will endure a full cold and flu season without any chance of administering a broad vaccination program.
This will produce a great deal of anxiety amongst Australians.
Given Australia has a questionable history in terms of racism and xenophobia, and indifference to it, what are the early indications of how Australians are reacting to this global health scare originating from China and likely ultimately broader Asia?
Not surprisingly, the early indications are not good with many reports detailing increased verbal and online attacks on people of (presumed) Asian ethnicity.
Moreover, there have been reports of online petitions with thousands of signatories seeking schools to restrict families that have travelled throughout wider Asia from attending, and the New South Wales Government has requested that students who have visited China remain at home in isolation for two weeks even though the Minister admitted it was not medically necessary and was done to appease public concerns.
As the patriarch of a mixed Asian Australian family, I was at the shops early last Saturday morning with my wife. We went to a quieter, stand-alone supermarket and agreed that there seemed to be more people of Asian ethnicity out early there with us. We bought a little more food than we normally would so that we could reduce the frequency with which we need to shop.
If my worst fears are confirmed over the next few weeks, then I expect that overt and angry xenophobia will be increasingly expressed towards Australians of perceived Asian ethnicity as the Wuhan coronavirus spreads especially throughout Asia, and as people become more fearful as Australia heads towards a long and difficult cold and flu season.
In my earlier seminal essay “Xenophobia Must Be Challenged For An Effective Response To Climate Change Inclusive of Population Growth“, I explained the clear-cut logic on why it is imperative that leaders provide strong leadership in denouncing racism.
I consider the climate change crisis to be the greatest challenge to humanity, and I can see no sustainable and durable response that does not involve a more cohesive humanity built on equivalent access to the same standard of living irrespective of where on Earth one chooses to live and raise a (typically small) family.
Depending on how the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak progresses in the next few weeks and months, and how successful are the scientific and pharmaceutical communities in expeditiously developing an effective vaccine, this disease may prove to be the most serious immediate challenge to humanity.
Moreover, if this outbreak is successfully contained and eradicated – primarily on the back of the impressive response by the Chinese authorities – it still gives an indication of the tenuous nature of our existence on this wonderful planet, and just how quickly the reality of our existence can be placed in danger.
Most significantly, it highlights that whether we are talking about acute or long-term crises, the reality of life on this Earth for humanity is that we have no choice but to face these challenges together.
Acting individualistically and with self-interest can not produce the sustainable effective response for which all people wish.
Clearly there is little chance of humanity coming together and working towards solutions to the greatest challenges if the groundwork to build mutual trust has been neglected.
Therefore, the best vaccine against crises is social cohesion within societies and across humanity.
Social cohesion within multicultural societies is the best stepping stone towards cohesion across humanity. And to do that we must address all of those biases and prejudices within our societies from the ground up, in our workplaces and in our day to day lives, and we must demand of our elected leadership that they work towards a united humanity, and we must punish (politically) those who seek to divide us.
That, I believe, is a world that the survivors of Auschwitz would want for us all, and as it was articulated so warmly and brilliantly by President Roosevelt shortly before his all too early passing.
In times of crisis it is very much human nature to reach out to friends in potential danger and inquire on whether they are doing OK, and to let them know that you are thinking of them and wishing them well. I certainly have received those types of emails myself from friends overseas this past summer as they expressed their concern and sorrow for the bushfires in Australia.
I guess we all hope that that brief moment of personal connection – a few kind and caring words, a smile, a pat on the back – will provide some emotional support to our friends and at the same time nourish our own souls.
That is what I did yesterday. After a long time I reached out to Zhengli to let her know I care and that I am thinking of her and her family. I had an inkling that she might be involved in the research into the outbreak, of course, but I was entirely unaware of her career successes since my early retirement from scientific research. Zhengli responded quickly, which I appreciated given the enormity of the challenge she and her team faces – I like to think a brief heart-warming personal distraction provided some light relief in the midst of the intense environment they are undoubtedly working through.
I am so glad that a person of the quality of Dr Shi Zhengli is heading up the research response to this current outbreak – a better person you could not meet, a loving mother and caring friend, and an exceptional scientist. We should all be grateful to her and her team, and our other Chinese friends responding on the ground, who are making significant personal sacrifices for all of our benefit.
As I have said on numerous occasions in my writing, it is when we face collective crises that we truly know that we are united together as human beings against our greatest challenges. Please let this be a lesson that we can hold onto and move forward together before we damage ourselves and our wonderful planet to a point where all of the progress of the last century is lost.
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020