China Coronavirus Panic: A “Western Universalism” Case Study

Author: Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay.

From China’s Problem to Global Crisis

For days people ignored #ChinaCoronaVirus – it was at best a footnote in most discussions. In early days people referred to it as the Wuhan Coronavirus and most thought that it would remain localized to China – so let the Chinese deal with it. Unfortunately for them, it spread. And the day it crossed over to the west and reached the US and Europe, it became a “global crisis.” Why? Because in the current universal mind space, the West is considered the center of the universe. The West is seen as the gold standard against which the entire world must be evaluated and hence if they call it a global crisis, then that is what it is. The US in particular has a tenet called American Exceptionalism[i], which makes them feel they are the only exceptional people in the world and that what they think is the “global” thinking.

Suddenly people everywhere are talking about how deadly the #NovelCoronavirus is – on how it will destroy “global” economy and infect and kill millions of people “globally”. China dealt with the issue with an iron fist and today there are no new cases being reported in China[ii]. Or at least that is what they want the world to believe. However, with each passing day, as new reports emerge, we are still understanding the extent of this calamity. And China’s criminality in keeping it for as long as it did from the world. South Korea was successfully able to control the virus using widespread testing and screening. Many countries are grappling with the outbreak but the focus of this post is to compare the worldviews of the West and India using the dharmic lens of “Being Different”.

Many people are recommending such a method as that used by South Korea, for India. Unfortunately that is not possible for India, given our size. To put things in perspective, the population of South Korea is less than Gujarat, the 9th largest states of India[iii]. India is following its own protocol of trying to limit and contain the spread of virus to Stage 2 (foreign travel history and contacts with them). All this started with pro-active aggressive screening of travelers from foreign countries – many of whom have turned out to be the carriers of the virus, and so far we have been ahead of the game. From cancelling foreign visas, restricting entry into India, using thermal scanners at airports, shutting down malls, public places, schools, colleges and gyms, we have been successful in limiting the spread of the virus. For a country like ours with a huge population and high population density, we have so far managed remarkably well to contain the spread of the virus, although much more can still be done and we must not become complacent[iv].

Western Responses

The World Health Organization came out with a list of actions to help prevent and contain this “global” pandemic. Immediately there was panic and countries in Western Europe ordered lock-downs. People in US, Canada and Europe, started hoarding food items and essentials.

Gun sales increased in US by 222% (although I am not sure whether guns can kill viruses). A spokesperson for a gun website had the following to say:

The world has never seen anything like this and people want to make sure they’re prepared for whatever lies ahead, whether that be food shortages, government shutdown, or worse. When everything around you is uncertain, having a supply of ammunition can make our customers feel safer.[v]

The Coronavirus being relatively new – not much is known about it. Normal viral infection, referred to as flu viruses has been around for a long time. Scientists have studied it for a long time and know what to expect each season – which is not the case with the new corona virus. In this context Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US said in a White House press conference:

Despite the morbidity and mortality with influenza, there’s a certainty … of seasonal flu. I can tell you all, guaranteed, that as we get into March and April, the flu cases are going to go down. You could predict pretty accurately what the range of the mortality is and the hospitalizations [will be]. The issue now with [COVID-19] is that there’s a lot of unknowns[vi].

The “global” response to the #WuhanCoronavirus of lock-downs, hoarding food and essentials etc. is thus an example of the western discomfort with uncertainty and disorder. The #Covid19 is an example of the new frontier – something unknown and unpredictable, hence considered dangerous and wild, and which needs to be “domesticated”. It is where chaos resides, and thus scary and frightening. The march of civilization requires the west to capture the frontier and make it part of the settlement – so that it becomes more civilized and orderly and hence controllable[vii]. Rajiv Malhotra in his seminal work Being Different, raises this issue of the West in a chapter called Order and Chaos. He says,

Chaos arises when one experiences phenomena which do not lie within one’s psychological and cultural comfort zones, resulting in a breakdown of cognition. The breaking point varies among individuals and cultures, but a few consistent patterns are discernible. People from dharmic cultures tend to be more accepting of difference, unpredictability and uncertainty than westerners. The dharmic view is that so-called chaos is natural and normal; it needs, of course, to be balanced by order, but there is no compelling need to control or eliminate it entirely nor to force cohesion from outside. The West, conversely, sees chaos as a profound threat that needs to be eradicated either by destruction or by complete assimilation.

Seen in this light, the western response to the new Coronavirus is exactly the same as the one they had when they historically confronted wild animals, forests, rivers, pagans, Native Americans, Australian aborigines and Indians and ended up first eradicating them and when they felt the threat was not too serious anymore, domesticating them to get rid of their “wild” nature.

Different Approaches to Containment Measures

Apart from commonsense measures like hygiene, washing hands, some of the other measures suggested by WHO like compulsory wide-testing and absolute seclusion, howsoever well-meaning, are premised on low population density nations. Such a model will not obviously work in a large country like India for very long periods. These differences are informed by the underlying civilizational differences – a Dharmic approach which is comfortable with chaos versus a western approach with thrives on order. A tweet from Prof. Vaidyanathan showing this difference illustrates the point very well.

The differences in approach to the crisis is very stark starting from the top. For contrast, let us study the two cases. In France, President Emmanuel Macron and in India, Prime Minister Modi addressed their respective nations on 19th March 2020 to update them about the measures the governments were taking and to also give the much needed reassurance that things were being taken care of. President Macron in his speech repeatedly said that France was “at war” with the virus whereas the Indian PM never raised the spectre of war. Quoting from the online paper The Local:

In a 20-minute address to the nation, he [President Macron] said the French had to “severely restrict movements for the next 15 days at least” and limit social contacts as much as possible. Any violation of this new regime would be “punished,” he said. [Emphasis ours]

In contrast, PM Modi of India did not talk about government imposing the restrictions for social distancing. Instead he appealed to the innate nature of ordinary Indians (not the entitled, well-heeled, rich, arrogant class, which thinks it can do whatever it wants without thinking about the greater common good) to self regulate and asked them to do a Janata Curfew (or voluntary isolation) from 7 AM to 9 PM on the 22nd of March 2020. The State machinery did not come down heavily on the populace at one go but made the populace an equal stakeholder in their own safety. The Prime Minister made the self isolation exercise a participatory affair talking to the Indians as an elder from the family. Most likely his appeal is likely to be successful than not because this decentralised approach is inherent in Indian society.

We need to understand that there are significant differences between India and US in terms of their approaches to health, hygiene and wellness. When we refer to India, we must not be Delhi-centric or Mumbai-centric, but focus on the whole country as a whole.

In the US, 81% of adults use over the counter drugs as a first response to even minor conditions. Pain-relieving drugs, such as opioids, are extensively prescribed and it is estimated that 2.1 million Americans have become addicted to such opioids. Another study found that, more than 30% of Americans consumed two or more prescription drugs in a week. Such prolonged consumption of a cocktail of drugs naturally weakens the body and could be can be potentially dangerous for a patient[viii]. The US Healthcare system is very expensive and there are very powerful insurance companies and pharma companies who pretty much call the shots.

  • Hygiene is a natural aspect of the Dharmic way of life. We bathe every day. We wash our hands many times. We eat freshly prepared hot food and use as ingredients items like ginger, turmeric, black-pepper, which have natural medicinal properties. A survey found that American women shower 4 to 5 times a week, while 80% of men shower daily[ix]. Many people in the west use deodorants as an alternative to bath. Americans eat 31% more packaged food than fresh food, and they consume more packaged food per capita than any other country worldwide[x].
  • In India, we have unfortunately become used to high level of pollution – whether it is the inhalation of polluted air, or drinking arsenic laced water or eating pesticide laden vegetables[xi]. While there is no medical evidence, we intuitively know that our bodies react differently to germs and pollutants compared to people from the west. In the US/ Western Europe, people seem to have hundreds of allergies – peanut allergies, dust allergy, pollen allergy, strawberry allergy, milk allergy and what not. Every year people are supposed to take flu-shots – something unthinkable in India. People pop pills for insomnia, headaches and for the mildest discomfort they face. They guzzle syrups for acid reflux and so on. In other words, the west has pretty much become a drug dependent society – and the pharma lobby has tried its best to weaken the immune systems of Americans.

This is not about America bad or India good, rather this is about us being different[xii] from them. The point is our response to any disease is different from the west – our bodies are different, our resistance levels are different, our food habits are different and our climate is different.

Unfortunately WHO being a Euro-centric organization is recommending protocols which work best for the west. A software or finance person may be able to work from home. What is the daily laborer supposed to do? What is the house maid supposed to do? What will the driver or vegetable vendor do? Sit at home and twiddle their thumbs for months at end without income? Clearly lock-downs and preparing for the worst (a reflection of the doomsday culture of the west) is not at all a feasible solution in India for very long periods. We can live with a day of #JanataCurfew as Prime Minister Modi has suggested[xiii], or perhaps even a few days (we can think of it as an extended Bharat Bandh) – but it cannot go on indefinitely.

Final Words

Given the minimal data that is available so far, it can be said that the novel corona virus is from all evidence available, much more contagious and has a much higher fatality rate than the usual corona viruses in general. But within the number there is huge variability by geography and age. What is certain is that it affects the older people much more severely than younger people, and so our government has recommended isolation for people above 60 years[xiv]. This is only sensible. Besides, it is not an order but only a request given as a family elder [State acting as a family elder] which surely will be complied with by and large, by the populace without fear or anxiety because the tone is familial and suggestive and not imposing and strict. Over time, once a vaccine is found it, it will be perhaps be comparable to normal flu, which in US which kills a large number of people every single year despite flu-shots. Seasonal viral infections are common in India. Had there been no global media circus, people would not have even realized that they were suffering anything different – perhaps a nastier viral infection. Before we had globalization, we had many viruses which came and went in India, and we managed reasonably well – given that we are a 130 crore population.

What we see today is the globalization and export of panic – the west is panicking, so the whole world must panic and be scared equally, if not more. They are being supported in this export of mass hysteria by global media and governments – who are still working without enough data and on the behest of a Euro-American WHO. We must of course take all necessary precautions as mandated by our government for the near future like cleanliness (which we anyway do) and social distance (which we need to enforce rigorously in our highly packed cities) – but I don’t think this is a “global crisis” or the end of the world. In fact Tesla CEO and founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk rubbished the claims of a study which predicted millions of deaths. Musk had called the coronavirus panic dumb and said that “coronavirus panic is worse than virus itself[xv]. I believe that we can do without all the drama, hype, panic and human-interest stories[xvi] that are emanating from the west. However, I must underline that I am not also saying that we should let our guard down. We have to be vigilant but not give in to panic because panic will cause further chain reactions which can be more than health related. With purchase of guns skyrocketing and the indiscriminate hoarding, people might just start to give release to their anxiety against the virus in other violent ways. The economic downturn could also bring about other reactions and if panic is allowed to continue, there could be a case for a future civil unrest in some places, seeing how strained Europe already is with its massive immigration crisis.

It doesn’t seem like this pandemic will go away that quickly notwithstanding Chinese propaganda that is out lately. Noted thinker and author Brahma Chellaney tweeted:

Neither China’s “in control” way, totalitarian, non-transparent and heavy-handed, nor the West’s anxious, aggressive, panic mode way is the way of dharma. Dharma tides over times like this in a more calm, collected, stoic and resolute manner and it has once again come to the fore today. The way of dharma is just BEING.

Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay is a civilization studies researcher with a background in data science. His writings on culture, philosophy and economics have appeared in various newspapers, online platforms and academic journals. He has authored two monographs titled “The Complete Hindu’s Guide to Islam” and “Ashoka the Ungreat“, and is a recipient of the Foundation for Indian Civilization Studies award for 2017.

[i] American Exceptionalism: A belief that the U.S. follows a path of history different from the laws or norms that govern other countries. That’s the essence of American exceptionalism: The U.S. is not just a bigger and more powerful country — but an exception

[ii] Coronavirus latest news: China reports no new local cases.

[iii] List of Indian States by Population.

[iv] India’s fight against Covid-19 is on the right track.

[v] Gun sales surge as coronavirus pandemic spreads.

[vi] How does the new coronavirus compare with the flu.

[vii] Watch this video by Rajiv Malhotra where he explains the idea of order and chaos in details: Rajiv Malhotra’s Talk at Kitab Khana, Mumbai’s Premier Bookstore.

[viii] Have we become too dependent on medication?

[ix] How Often People in Various Countries Shower

[x] Factory Food

[xi] In West Bengal people had been eating the meat of dead dogs and cats, thinking it was chicken. This had apparently being going on for a very long time

[xii] Do read “Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism” to get a deeper understanding of the subject of difference between dharma traditions and western traditions

[xiii] PM Narendra Modi forms economic response task force, calls for ‘Janata Curfew’

[xiv] Janta Curfew to beat Coronavirus: PM Modi calls upon all to be home on 22 March

[xv] ‘0% chance’: Elon Musk trashes study which projects millions of coronavirus deaths

[xvi] Picture of 73-yr-old doctor at forefront of coronavirus fight goes viral; netizens share stories of grit and courage of healthcare professionals

6 thoughts on “China Coronavirus Panic: A “Western Universalism” Case Study”

  1. Ananth Sethuraman

    Rajiv Malhotra’s Being Different is filled with hard concepts—concepts well above our social science syllabi and our op-ed articles. Articles like this one help to understand those hard concepts. Thank you!

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