Is the scientific discourse about covid-19 and its origins too western-centric?

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At the beginning of the spread of Covid-19, there was a scramble amongst scientists and governments globally to trace the origin of the virus. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market quickly became the centre of Covid origin narratives in both media and scientific discourse, since many of the first patients had visited the market. A flurry of scientific papers came out calling for the ban of ‘wet markets’ in China, eventually garnering support from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in April 2020. 

In one such research article titled ‘Do not blame bats and pangolins!’ by Turcios-Casco and Gatti in 2020, wet markets were described as “unhygienic, mixed-species” spaces. Similarly, narratives propagated in Western media painted markets as wet, gory and vile, with wild-eyed exotic animals in cages at every corner. In some ways, this left a permanent mark on our current, and possibly future, perceptions about China’s wet markets. 

From my twenty-two years of growing up in Hong Kong, I know that is not what wet markets are. 

These are places where we get our fresh groceries – tomatoes, spring onions, poultry, fish and so much more. The actual issue that is of concern to the emergence of the pandemic is the unregulated selling of wildlife, which can sometimes be found in wet markets, but certainly not all. Clearly, there was a disconnect between the Western image of wet markets and a more realistic understanding of what they are, what they look like, and how they function.

What stood out to me, as an ecologist, was that this disconnect was very reminiscent of old-school ecological and climate change studies about Asia or Africa. The West heavily criticised indigenous or traditional practices of wildlife and nature management or blamed others for one climate change factor or another. For example, shifting cultivation or the “slash and burn” practice in tropical Africa was criticised for years before the seminal papers were overturned (as Ickowitz analyses in 2006 in a paper titled ‘Shifting Cultivation and Deforestation in Tropical Africa: Critical Reflections’) – yet I was still taught in school that it was a “problematic” practice for its carbon emissions. Field work in ecology is also often (still) carried out with neo-colonial attitudes by Western scientists. As Eichhorn and colleagues point out in a paper titled ‘Steps towards decolonising biogeographyin 2020, the colonialist origins of these types of sciences leave behind long-lasting legacies.

It would be easy to say this is simple racism on the part of these scientists, but I would say the root of the problem lay – or rather, lies – in the tendency of Western discourse to stick to their own cultural value system when evaluating other cultural phenomena. 

In particular, one of the pillars of science is to fit your science into existing literature, i.e. what is known in the field. However, scientific literature and indeed the field itself originates from the West and is thus dominated by Westerners, meaning non-Western voices are often unheard or at least struggle to be heard. As a result, what is observed in regions foreign to the West are introduced into the field from a Western perspective, which can easily translate into neo-colonial views of differing cultures being incorporated into the dominant narrative. 

In daily life, it is normal and necessary to adhere to one’s own value system, since it helps us understand the world around us, and ideally, helps us become better human beings. But when issuing authoritative statements about a culture or people in a different context, understanding that different value system not only becomes a part of forming a basic understanding of a subject, but also becomes an issue of fairness.

Think about it: every culture has its quirks which are not easily understood by others. It would be unfair to call for a ban on a cultural practice just because an outsider did not attempt to understand its importance or value within the original context. 

A good example I encounter as an ecologist is the debate over Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Western literature is filled with claims that TCM is ineffective or that there is no evidence TCM has any “actual” medicinal value. Since TCM sources materials from all sorts of wildlife, including endangered animals, many Western conservationists actively lobby for abolishing the practice and banning its use. 

Anytime I see similar opinions from Western writers or scientists, I can only sigh. First of all, Western medicine is only a single form of medicine. It certainly is not the only treatment form that works in healing wounds and soothing pains, so why should it be the authoritative metric in evaluating the effectiveness or validity of another form of medicine?

But more importantly, why should the value of TCM lie only in its effectiveness to heal? The cultural and historical implications behind TCM stretch across centuries – it is perhaps one of the staples of Chinese history. Why should something of cultural value not be considered valid in the eyes of science when ecology and culture are so intrinsically linked? 

As an ecologist, I care deeply about the conservation of endangered animals – including those that are unsustainably consumed for TCM. But that is not mutually exclusive with the fact that TCM has its own value and should not be outright banned. The same concepts can be applied to wet markets – just because it is not something the West  encounters does not mean it has to be destructive and wrong, or something without real value. Not to mention that wet markets and TCM both hold enormous economic value.

Most critically, however, is that this type of biased perception is directional. The dominant narrative never turns against Western cultures. In the case of the current pandemic, how the West responded to the spread of the disease certainly lent a hand to our current predicament, as did the exploitation of wildlife in Asia. Yet, much of scientific literature and Western discourse focuses on the lack of decisive action from the Chinese government in the early days of the pandemic. There has been some literature criticising the racial and economic inequities of the pandemic, but it certainly is not the dominant narrative. 

This biased and disproportionate coverage of the global situation in terms of the pandemic can lead to issues of misinformation, but more importantly, it can encourage discriminatory narratives that create long-lasting and far-reaching consequences for minority groups in the West. 

Ultimately, keeping an open mind and actively respecting other cultures is simply crucial in an increasingly accessible and global scientific arena. There is a need for the scientific academia to detach itself from the neo-colonial ideas and tropes that belong in the past in order to do good and fair science. For non-scientists, it is also critical to pay attention to who is doing the science that you are reading and interpret that science accordingly. There is a burgeoning culture and awareness amongst the West to be critical of one’s source of news and information – that should also be extended to the field of scientific knowledge. This is not to say that you should not trust any science that was done by a scientist from a different culture, but one should be wary of harmful biases in the scientific academia to prevent spreading destructive ideas that may leave unforgiving stains in history.

Article by Portia Wong

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