There has been a lot of media coverage over the last few days about the origin of COVID-19. Did it jump across species or was it engineered and somehow escape from a lab?
I may have said before that I don’t really care how COVID-19 came about – it would in no way impact upon how rubbish the last year has been. The government would still have trashed the economy and locked us into our homes.*
But there is something that I do care about.
The truth-discovery and truth-telling institutions of our society have failed.
When the coronavirus pandemic first emerged in Wuhan in December 2019, conspiracy theorists quickly pointed out that it was close to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a leading world centre for research on coronaviruses.
Of all the labs in all the cities in all the world, a deadly coronavirus had emerged at the spot where scientists were believed to be creating deadly coronaviruses.
Yet within a matter of weeks, vocal members of the scientific community had roundly ridiculed the claims, criticising “shoddy” research that had spread on social media. It was far more likely, they insisted, that the virus had jumped from an animal and been picked up by a human in the Wuhan wet market.
Early indicators showed that many of the people who became infected early on had links to the market, and by May last year scientists had found that the virus was 97.1 per cent similar to a disease found in bats in China’s Yunnan province.
So by last summer, despite the odd murmuring from the Trump administration, the lab escape theory seemed dead. Geneticists who claimed they had found evidence of man-made inserts in the virus were shunned, and journals refused to publish their work.
‘[J]ournals refused to publish their work’. Looks like a massive failure of the so-called peer-review system.
So how could this happen? This morning the AFR republished a piece from the New York Time – yes, that New York Times.
In this case, because the lab leak theory was associated early on with Republican China hawks like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, given prominence by conservative publications (Jim Geraghty of National Review has been an essential and even-handed voice on the subject) and eventually picked up by the Trump administration, there was self-reinforcing pressure – among journalists who covered the story and Twitter experts who opined on it – to put the possibility in the QAnon box and leave it there.
I will leave it to the reader to consider how a similar pressure might manifest itself in other areas, from the 2020-21 murder spike to the recent rise in anti-Semitic violence, where journalists might wish to avoid making concessions to conservative interpretations of reality.
But let me offer a narrower addition to the media critique. One key change to mainstream journalism in the Trump era was the impulse to tell the reader exactly what to think, lest by leaving anything ambiguous you gave an inch to right-wing demagogy. It was not enough to simply report, “Republican politician X said conspiratorial-sounding thing Y.”
You also had to specifically describe the conspiratorial thing as false or debunked misinformation, in a way that once would have been considered editorialising, so as to leave no doubt in the vulnerable reader’s mind.
Yep. The academy and the media so hated Trump that they were prepared to lie to the public.
The Chinese communists, along with much of the commentary class in the West, have hailed China’s response to the virus as yet another example of the superiority of the Chinese model. It’s becoming common in much of the world to contrast the modern pathologies of America – political division, economic stagnation, social unrest – with the steady, unrelenting ascent of China’s state-directed, well-ordered economic and social model.
Yeah, but nah.
We’ve heard these arguments before. The Soviets promised to bury us. The superior Asian values of the 1990s promised to destroy us. Blah, blah, blah. Liberal democracy will prevail over authoritarianism and totalitarianism. It is the enemies within that we need be most concerned about.