The Debatable Land #3: Whose Truth Is It Anyway?
Old China vs New China in the search for the origins of Covid
Old China vs New China
Question: if Covid had emerged in, say, Brazil rather than in China would more or less effort and attention been devoted to discovering where and how it had actually begun? To ask the question is to sense the answer: of course tracking the virus’s origins would have been considered a more pressing matter, a quest to be pursued unto the ends of the earth with neither fear nor favour. The Truth would have been all.
Because it is China, matters are arranged differently. The World Health Organisation’s decision to avoid labelling a variant ‘Xi’ is grimly amusing - having determined that naming versions of the virus after the places they were discovered risking “stigmatising”, er, Kent the WHO’s decision to swap to letters of the Greek alphabet opened the door to a much greater embarrassment - but also revealing. China cannot afford to be embarrassed, so China must be treated gently.
So be it, you may think. I certainly have no means of properly evaluating the competing claims of the “natural” or “lab leak” theories of Covid’s origins. Nevertheless, certain tentative observations may still be made. First, much of the global scientific community has been itself embarrassed during the pandemic. Secondly, Donald Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus” was considered disgraceful in all respectable circles. So much so, indeed, that it set back the cause of discovering how this disaster - for such it is - happened. To ask questions was to implicitly side with Trump and no person of good conscience could do that. Better to keep quiet and say nothing. Thirdly, however, neither side has yet - as best I can tell - prevailed in the lab leak battle.
It would, in one sense, be comforting if the virus were proved to have escaped from a Wuhan lab (by accident, not deliberately let loose). It would provide a villain of a kind that simplifies stories. Humans are not well-equipped to deal with happenstance and freakish coincidence or accident. Indeed, in the western world we have perhaps never been less able to deal with such things. That is one consequence of divesting ourselves of God and all the consolations the deity offers.
Coincidences do happen. Perhaps the virus really did emerge from the Huanan Seafood Market. But those sceptical of the official version of events have some cause for their doubts and one need not be a scientist to respect that view. Has China failed to offer the kind of open-book candour and transparency in terms of tracking the virus to its origin because it has something dark to hide or is this apparent attempt to cloud the issue actually just China’s standard way of operating, giving the impression of hiding something even when there is nothing to hide? In other words, is China guilty of something specific or is it only guilty of being China? Neither possibility is greatly encouraging.
Yet it does matter and not just because the virus has killed more than five million people. It is important because Covid’s origin also tells us something about China.
Two stories are available. In the first, the virus crossed the species barrier at a wet market. In the second, it leaked from a laboratory. The former is a story of Old China; the latter a tale from New China.
If the wet market is point zero, Beijing may present the virus as a legacy of an older, antiquated, China of a kind the regime is fast leaving to history. A terrible thing has been unleashed upon the world but it is, well, just one of those things; the last gasp of a disappearing China.
By contrast, and much more problematically, if the virus emerged from a Wuhan laboratory its spread is an accident directly traceable to New China. And that would suggest that even New China, thrusting and glittering and ever more prosperous, is still neither as new nor so secure as it would like us to believe. A lab leak, if proved, would suggest China is not yet as ready for prime time as it thinks it is. That has consequences too, not all of which are confined to Beijing’s loss of face. For it would be a reminder that while China has travelled far, it still has a long way to go too. It would, if only for a moment, remind the world Beiing’s word and bona fides cannot be wholly trusted.
Which, of course, also helps explain why the wet market vs lab leak divide also maps onto another argument: that between China doves and China hawks. That is a subject which will not be settled one way or the other for some time yet; it’s also an argument which cannot be ignored, no matter how much more comfortable it would be to pretend it did not exist. Because it does and its resolution is a matter of significant and global importance.
Relatedly: What can be sacrificed if doing so would hasten China’s determination to take the measures necessary to mitigate climate change? The Uighurs? Hong Kong? Taiwan? Where is the line drawn? Is there even a line?
A Share-owning democracy, if you can keep it
According to a recent survey conducted by Hargreaves Lansdown there are three kinds of adult in this country. Those who know their pension is at least partly invested in the stock market (35%), those who think it is not (33%) and those who have no idea if it is or not (32%). This is worth contemplating next time a politician or tub-thumper deplores the profit motive and has a pop at shareholders, well known as the greediest of the greedy and thoroughly beyond the pale.
Whenever I hear this I feel like asking, ‘Who do you think owns these companies?’ For while the answer includes pensioners and pension funds from other countries, it is also People Like You. Indeed, share ownership has probably never been so widespread as it is now, even if the majority of stocks are held indirectly. The (long overdue) introduction of automatic enrolment in pension schemes has seen to that. Some twenty million people in Britain are now part of workplace pension schemes of one sort or another and countless others - like your humble scribe - are self-invested pension planners.
The ignorance of all this is quite astonishing but it also speaks to something else: British business is remarkably bad at talking, let alone at making a case for itself and for its owners. Popular capitalism has never, in fact, been so popular - it’s just that many people have no idea they are participants in the game. Shareholder value and shareholder rewards need not be dirty terms; they should be thought examples of good practice, demanded for the common good.
In the light of which, it seems mystifying business cannot recognise - or appears not to care - about the story it could tell here. Far from preying upon the little guy, big business could - with some reason! - claim to be looking after his long-term interests. But if business won’t tell its own story, it shouldn’t be surprised if no-one else is interested in doing so either.
The Journey That Never Ends
These are the Scottish figures for the number of people who have received two doses of vaccine and, as Nicola Sturgeon may from time to time have reminded us, they are modestly better than those elsewhere in the United Kingdom. And they tell two stories: first, the vaccination programme has been an astonishing success. In just a year, all those most vulnerable to the virus (pre-Omicron) have been broadly protected against it. But, secondly, even after a year of unprecedented public health activity 30 percent of people in their 20s have not received both doses. Even worse, one in five people in that age bracket have not received even a single dose of the vaccine. I know it is considered poor form to be ageist about such things but, as they say in Ireland, the young folk should cop themselves on.
Which brings us to Plan B (announced by Boris Johnson this week) and vaccine passports. The evidence from Scotland is not so much that vaccine passports do not work so much as their effectiveness depends upon how they are actually used. A vaccine passport that does not cover the hospitality industry is about as useful as no vaccine passport programme at all. If you may gather indoors with up to 400 other people (save in a nightclub or “sexual entertainment” venue) without needing proof of vaccination you might as well not bother with them at all. It is an all or nothing business.
So England’s programme, as currently advertised, won’t work either. The point of a vaccine passport requirement is lost if people may easily lead a 95% normal life without needing a passport. This seems elementary yet also something which has not properly occurred to our political leaders. An episode of pandemic theatre, then, rather than a real means of slowing the pandemic or encouraging stupid - yes, stupid and selfish - young people to get vaccinated. Which is why, sure as eggs be eggs, tougher restrictions are coming soon.
Meanwhile in Helsinki: the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin (36), has apologised for failing to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who had tested positive and, instead, going clubbing until 4am. I know very little about Finland but assumed its relative success during the pandemic (fewer than 1500 deaths) was attributable to the Finnish people’s natural gift for social distancing. But maybe it is more complicated than that…
"Every time a fairy sheds a tear, a wee bit star is born in the Milky Way.”
Say what you will about Prince Harry but it is a long, long journey from the lad who attended fancy dress parties dressed in an SS officer’s uniform to his new incarnation as a kind of Royal Madeline Bassett. Something, somewhere, seems to have been lost.
“Every single raindrop that falls from the sky relieves the parched ground. What if every single one of us was a raindrop, and if every single one of us cared?”
It cannot be long until, like Wodehouse’s soupy horror, Harry reminds us that “The stars are god’s daisy chain”. People often talk of Harry in terms of his mother but, remarkably, he is just like his father only dafter.
In a very real sense, we are all survivors
Thanks to the Daily Telegraph for allowing my generation to consider itself survivors of the Falklands War.
My thanks to those of you who asked after Stan, following his castration last Friday. I am happy to report that, following a trying first 24 hours, he has recovered well and is back to being his wilful, infuriatingly stubborn, splendid self. Such is life with a German Wirehaired Pointer…
Writing about Henry VIII (a bona fide monster), Ed West casually drops this: “Henry’s reign was overshadowed by the uncertainty and chaos that had preceded his father Henry Tudor taking the throne in 1485. Tudor had a very tenuous claim and became king largely by dint of being one of the last aristocrats still alive. (The level of inter-aristocratic violence in this period cannot be over-emphasised: in the 15th century, the homicide rate among English noblemen was 25%, comparable only to hunter-gatherer societies and surpassing anywhere even in the mid-20th century.)” [Substack]
Man builds largest model railway in Britain (1000m of track!); prudently does not tell girlfriend: "When I first met her she didn't know I was building this. She knew I leased a mill with a huge basement, but I kind of led her to believe I was a wine merchant because that sounded cooler than building a model railway." [BBC]
Steve Coll, veteran chronicler of Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the Afghan endgame. A grim tale but one that needs telling. [New Yorker]
Hadley Freeman interviews Mel Brooks and joy and tears ensue. Hadley is one of British journalism’s great interviewers, partly because she tends to like the people she talks to. [Guardian]
I loathe pantomime but perhaps that’s because I am neither a Glaswegian by birth or adoption and never could be. But Andrew O’Hagan makes a good case for panto as a quintessential Glasgwegian entertainment: “I’ll spare you my theory that the best of it is better than King Lear and The Cherry Orchard put together.” [LRB]
During a disagreeable week for Boris Johnson - reality is a stern mistress, right enough and power reveals character which is a problem for a prime minister such as Johnson - I wrote a mildly intemperate thing for The Spectator about this shabby, low-rent government. Short version: WHAT ELSE DID YOU EXPECT?
[In 1937] Gallup began taking opinion polls in Britain. One of the first questions was, “Do you consider that doctors should be given power to end the life of a person incurably ill?” Sixty-nine per cent of those surveyed said yes, they should.
Little has changed since. This is an issue upon which the public have a settled view that was, in general, reached long ago.
Also: I took part in a discussion with the playwright James Graham and Helen Lewis for BBC Radio 3’s “Free Thinking” programme. The hook was James’s new play about the debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley and we chatted about how to argue in public and the point - or pointlessness - of TV debates in general.
Bach. Yo-Yo Ma. What more could you desire?
That’s all for this week folks. Thanks for being here. Should you fancy sharing this with friends, family, foes or whomever please do so. See you next time, if we’re spared…