The Dual Narrative of Wuhan: Science vs The Primitive

Throughout February and March 2020, the public were inundated with news reports that the coronavirus (Covid-19) originated in the wet food markets of Wuhan where trade extends beyond domestic meats into wild and exotic animals. This peaked at the end of March when The Sun claimed (based on a Wall Street Journal report) that ‘patient-zero’ was a shrimp seller. here

The narrative of the origins being at the Chinese food markets is further alluded to in an article published at the end of February in the Emerging Microbes & Infections journal, which concludes that there is ‘no evidence’ of the virus that causes Covid-19 originating in a laboratory and it is more likely to have been generated in nature. here

When the findings of the scientific article were circulated by The New Scientist at the end of March, it opened with the line, ‘No, this virus isn’t a bioweapon.’ here Why? At the same time that the wet markets story was peaking, it was also starting to lose its traction in the press, and while the press wasn’t reaching all out towards the conspiracy of a manufactured disease, The Washington Post would soon bring into the public eye US officials’ concerns about the Wuhan laboratory dating back to 2018 here , and Fox News would go as far as to blame Chinese Propaganda for the focus on the wet markets of Wuhan as a means to cover up an accidental release of the virus. here

The theories of a laboratory mishap were further propagated in the UK by news channels like the BBC here and news stories have started dialling back on earlier views of wet markets being primitive places in order to assist this hypothesis. here

It is the perfect dual narrative of espousal and denial. On the one side we have the primitive and bestial act of eating something that is unsanitary, and which connects too directly with our base animal nature. On the other we have science going too far, looking too deeply. For those who believe we must remove ourselves as far as possible and create distance between our animal and intellectual selves, the first narrative is wholly satisfying. We need society, we need security, we need science, or else we have Lord of the Flies. Whereas for those who believe the hubris of science has gone too far, we have the second narrative, one of mad scientists, a retelling of Frankenstein. But what is killing people? Is it science or is it our primitive selves? The conspiracy theorists want it to be a combination of both, biological warfare; an egomaniacal drive for superiority that goes beyond all ethics and logic, and which has been made possible by science. here

News reports have flip-flopped between the two primary narratives with The Guardian stating at the beginning of February, that the virus ‘most likely start[ed] from live animals in the Wuhan wet market late last year’ here and its more recent position has been to defend the markets through showing a more enlightened understanding of what they actually are. here

Both narratives about the origins of Covid-19 work, it could’ve originated in a laboratory or it could’ve originated through a more natural transmission. We are culturally accustomed to both, and also familiar with conspiracies about biological engineering. But the reason the interpretation of Covid-19’s source is of interest to writers is because it exposes the wiring under the board about how literature and culture enable people to interpret the world and its events. Literature is not simply an intellectual exercise, or something written to entertain, it is a point of reference for society. And just as science looks at viruses in increasing depth in order to understand them, so writers need to provide increasingly refined frameworks for cultural interpretation with the hope that they will enable us to interrogate narratives of blame more carefully in the future.

More immediately, it is the writer’s role to maintain a balance between science and the primitive nature of human beings; not to allow puritanism to run wild, or for people with tape measures to take control. here This is important because when we are released from lockdown, when we go back to normality, the new normal needs to remain human, and be more than simply an exercise in avoiding infection.

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