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Corona and the Arrogance of the West

Source: WHO COVID-19 Weekly Epidemiological Update, 15 December 2020

The Corona Shock

The global shockwaves of the Corona pandemic are far from subsiding. In some regions of the world – especially in East Asia and the Pacific – the spread of the virus has been halted, but other regions – especially Europe and the USA – are not getting the virus under control. Covid-19 is the most sudden and savage globalization shock to date. What is worse, as Stan Chu Ilo pointed out in this forum back in June, “diseases and outbreaks like Covid-19, Zika, Ebola, and HIV/AIDS have a »preferential option for the poor«.” As Corona increases inequality, polarization grows. It is immigrants, women, the poor, children, and the elderly who suffer most from the pandemic.

In this post, I would like to look at the Corona shock from a European or Western perspective. My thesis is that the pandemic has plunged the Western world into an identity crisis. Corona has shown the West its vulnerability and dependence, even unpreparedness and incompetence. The pandemic does not herald the end of globalization, but – as will be shown – it does herald the end of “Western supremacy” (Sophie Bessis).

While the streets of Taipei are crowded and the restaurants in Seoul are full, many European countries are in lockdown, with infection and death rates reaching horrific highs. For ten months, European governments have been battling the virus. What is the best strategy? How can health and the economy be balanced against each other? How can vulnerable groups be effectively protected? Despite the undoubtedly dedicated wrestling with this daunting challenge, there are more and more voices saying “The West has failed – US and Europe have made a mess of handling the crisis.”

In my view, one of the main reasons for the failure is the arrogance of the West. Although Europe had little experience in fighting pandemics (the last major pandemic, the Spanish flu, was 100 years ago), little attention was paid to more experienced continents such as Africa or Asia. A widespread opinion, though not always expressed aloud, was: the West is superior to the rest of the world, we don’t need outside help. We can solve the problem on our own. What a misconception!

Recipes for Success

The success strategies of other countries are not a secret. They are well known, scientifically studied, and have proven successful in previous epidemics such as SARS-Cov-1, MERS-Cov, or Ebola. Let me give you some examples from the African context:

The list of African success stories could easily be extended. The West could also have learned from the East Asian experience. Czech journalist Josef Bouska summarizes the East Asian recipe for success as follows:

  • Face masks are a must indoors, with huge fines for offenders.
  • Sophisticated contact tracing systems were in place.
  • Testing was intensive and easily accessible.
  • Social distancing measures limited the numbers of participants at public events.
  • Temperature checks were in place at entry points to most indoor spaces.
  • Strict quarantines were enforced on travelers from risk countries, subject to geo tracking and daily checks from officials.
  • Production of protective equipment was ramped up, and citizens were informed where to get it.
  • First and foremost, safety measures were deployed before the pandemic hit hard – and ordinary people respected them.

Many of these measures could have helped the European continent, but were ignored or implemented too late. Geographic distance is no justification for this shortcoming, as Corona control in New Zealand and Australia has been well recorded in Europe. The excuse that Europe cannot copy the methods of authoritarian one-party regimes such as China or Vietnam also misses the point, since democratic countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan have been similarly successful in containing the virus. No, the deep crisis in which the West finds itself is largely rooted in its own arrogance toward the rest of the world.

The West and the Rest

What are the underlying reasons for this arrogance? If one follows the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, one must go back to the 16th century to find out. In his book European Universalism. The Rhetoric of Power (2006)[1], Wallerstein traces how the Western sense of superiority has evolved over the past 500 years – that is, since the discovery of the Americas. “Those who have led and profited most from this expansion have presented it to themselves and the world as justified on the grounds of the greater good that such expansion has had for the world’s populations.” (Wallerstein 2006, 1) Under the banner of civilization and progress, the European colonial powers expanded their global empires; “the barbarity of the others” (ibid., 6) was to be tamed by intervention and education. This “rhetoric of the powerful” (ibid., xiv), Wallerstein argues, continues to shape the West’s relationship with the rest of the world today. “The tone is often righteous, hectoring, and arrogant” (ibid., xiii).

Similarly, the Jamaican-British cultural theorist Stuart Hall, in his essay The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power (1992)[2], explains how the idea of the West became “the organizing factor in a system of global power relations” (Hall 1992, 143). “The West was the model, the prototype, and the measure of social progress … ‘The Other’ was the ‘dark’ side – forgotten, repressed, and denied, and the reverse image of enlightenment and modernity” (ibid., 177). Hall also shows that Christian theology played a decisive role in this dichotomous division of the world. Colonial expansion was not only about accumulating wealth for Europeans, but also about saving the souls of indigenous peoples. This “Catholic dream of converting the world to the Christian faith” (ibid., 150) was one of the driving factors for European expansion. The superiority of the West is thus based on a toxic combination of colonial and missionary activity.

This hubris falls back on the West in the Corona crisis. There is not enough willingness to learn from Africa and Asia – regions formerly labeled as “uncivilized” and “underdeveloped”. The virus offends the ego of the West and exposes the ideas of “Western supremacy” or “American exceptionalism” as harmful ideologies.

The Homage of the Magi

Let’s go deeper into the Christian roots of Western arrogance. A good illustration of this is the feast we are celebrating these days: Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. Although this narrative enjoys great popularity, especially among children, it also holds the potential for dangerous interpretations. The Magi, also called “Wise Men” in some translations, represent the non-Christian, pagan world. They pay homage to the newborn Messiah and King. “Gentiles bring gifts such as gold in acts of recognition, willing submission and worship.”[3] From this narrative of submission, a call for Christian domination of the entire world could be derived. It is not surprising that in the Middle Ages the Magi often represented the three continents known at that time: Africa, Asia and Europe. Christian wisdom was considered superior to the rest of the world. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor 1:20)

We see how biblical narratives can take on a dangerous drift. They can contribute to a Christian supremacy creeping into one’s own self-understanding, which can then have devastating consequences in one’s actions. Yet, such arrogance is incompatible with Christian wisdom, as can be read unequivocally a few lines later in 1 Corinthians: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the things of this world that are common and looked down on. He chose what is not considered to be important to do away with what is considered to be important.” (1 Cor 1:27f.) The homage of the Magi is thus to the weak, the unimportant, not to a Christian claim to dominion.

In Christian theology, we could benefit from listening more often to “Sacred Strangers” (Nancy Haught) like the Magi who remind us of the core of our faith. It would help immunize us against any form of arrogance. The Corona pandemic is a lesson that we can only solve global crises together; we must listen to and learn from each other. With the ecological crisis, we face an even greater challenge that will not allow us to be arrogant.

[1] Wallerstein, Immanuel: European Universalism. The Rhetoric of Power, New York: New Press 2006.

[2] In: Hall, Stuart: Essential Essays Vol. 2: Identity and Diaspora, Durham/London: Duke University Press 2019, 141-184.

[3] Segovia, Fernando F., Sugirtharajah, R. S. (eds.): A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, London: T&T Clark 2009, 81.