It’s not surprising that Covid-19 has made people angry: their lives have become disrupted in unimaginable ways. People have lost family members to the disease, or suffered for months with long Covid. With the restrictions needed to keep health services afloat, small businesses have gone under, city centres have been shuttered and people have spent months without seeing loved ones. Basic freedoms that we took for granted were taken away in order to stop the spread of a dangerous virus. The questions of where it came from, and just who is responsible for all this devastation and loss, have assumed outsize importance.
This is perhaps why blame has become central to many discussions, with all the problems that brings. People want to know whose fault Covid-19 is. Professors Zhou Xun and Sander Gilman explore this territory in their book ‘I Know Who Caused Covid-19’: Pandemics and Xenophobia. The authors examine the experiences of, and attitudes towards, a number of groups that have found themselves in the spotlight at various points: Chinese people, ultra-Orthodox Jews, black and brown people and, finally, Donald Trump-supporting white Americans. Some key themes emerge from their analysis.
First, we must differentiate government responses from those of citizens and scientists. The Chinese government is responsible for its lack of transparency about how Covid-19 first emerged. But its people are not nor are the virologists who released data and genetic sequencing information to colleagues across the world, allowing them to make testing kits and vaccines.
Second, how we name viruses matters. In early 2020, Sars-CoV-2 was labelled the “Wuhan virus”, and the “China virus”. Then came the “Kent variant” and the “Indian variant”. All this can lead to entire groups of people being seen as “unclean” and “diseased”. The World Health Organization has tried to rectify the situation by referring to variants using the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta, delta etc), shifting the focus from “who is to blame” to “they’re here, how do we manage them”.
Third, fear and uncertainty drive much of the xenophobia discussed in the book. This resonates with the UK Brexit vote. Lack of familiarity breeds contempt. I am reminded of Brexit, and how it was often areas with the fewest EU migrants that voted to leave, while those with the most were happier about having deep ties to our neighbours. It is easier to feel distrust towards “all Chinese” than towards the Chinese person living next door. Ultimately the rhetoric of blame doesn’t help to solve any of the problems we currently face. This becomes clear when one considers vaccine hesitancy among some minority communities (often referred to as BAME in the UK). These groups have been more reluctant to take Covid vaccines, but blaming them only marginalises them further. Instead, engagement, listening and reaching out to understand their concerns are more important in increasing vaccine uptake. Many of these communities’ worries are linked to historic episodes of mistreatment by the authorities, themselves the product of earlier cycles of blame. The irony of Covid-19 is that while so many people around the world have experienced the same loneliness, isolation and frustration, the pandemic needn’t have led to greater polarisation: it was an opportunity to build solidarity, for people to work collectively to support each other. The final sentence of the book really nails the sentiment underlying this: “I know who caused Covid-19. THEY did.” Our challenge is to learn how, in future crises, to turn the question from “who caused Covid-19?” to “how do we work together to fix it?”
• Devi Sridhar is professor of global public health at Edinburgh University. ‘I Know Who Caused COVID-19’: Pandemics and Xenophobia by Zhou Xun and Sander Gilman is published by Reaktion (£16). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.