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On the Brink of a Pandemic; “World, jiāyóu”


The city of Wuhan, ground zero of the coronavirus, is 6 six days under lockdown when residents take to WeChat and start to suggest that they should chant uplifting phrases from their apartment windows to one and another. The participants decide that at 20:00 p.m. on the 28th of January the chanting commences. As planned, the participants take to the windows and start to chant: Wuhan, jiāyóu!” from apartment to apartment, to building to building, filling the air with words of solidarity. A sense of harmony that’s unique and powerful in times of crisis. 

A video shot of that very moment started to circulate a month ago. In that video locals were shouting out of their windows a phrase that can be interpreted as “Wuhan, stay strong!”. The original saying in Chinese is “Wuhan, jiāyóu” and can be translated directly as “add oil”. The meaning of the aphorism that started circulating in the 1960s relates to the need for oil to be added in order to have the energy to continue whatever activity the interlocutor was busy with (i.e. similar to the Dutch “Succes!”). The inhabitants of Wuhan were shouting the message out of their windows, to express solidarity and support for fellow citizens, doctors, and medical staff at the forefront of the battle against the coronavirus. Generally, the phrase is used in a sentiment of “stay strong” or “keep going”. 

The international community is currently installed with fear and worries of the fast spread of the coronavirus. However, I argue that solidarity with the countries that have so-called hot pockets of the virus such as China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy is necessary if we want to overcome this crisis. Furthermore, I argue that fake news and fear-mongering on social media have a negative effect on said solidarity, portraying hatred and radiating panic.  

However, the image of the regressively savage or selfish panicky human being in times of crisis has little truth to it. Rebecca Solnit proves the opposite and states in her book A Paradise Built in Hell that when facing a crisis or a disaster, humanity historically seeks solidarity. Examples of solidarity and resilience in times of crisis were seen after Hurricane Katrina in the US, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the Haiti earthquakes, and the Indian Tsunami. Survivors tended to the injured, gathered supplies, and set up camp whilst waiting for the government to help. In the wake of such disasters, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, neighbours and friends, strangers from various backgrounds, and loved ones. 

During my own research in post-disaster Lombok I found that in the wake of the 2018 earthquakes the survivors pulled together and helped each other. I recall one of my interlocutors telling me that during the aftermath of the first earthquakes and the threat of a tsunami, he kept driving around on his motorbike in the lower region of his town to redirect disoriented people to the higher placed refugee camp. Other examples vary from interior villages taking in refugees from the coastal area as if they were their own to various ethnic and religious groups working together whilst gathering supplies, setting up camp, and rebuilding their society. 

Looking at historical data, decades of sociological research on behaviour in disasters, from the bombings of World War II, the concentration camps of Nazi Germany to major natural and technical disasters since the 1950s have demonstrated this sense of solidarity and resilience.  One of the more striking examples is the research Olakunle Alonge and his team did on the resilience and solidarity during the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa. They write in their article that community resilience and solidarity was one of the mandatory factors needed to fight the virus. Once community stepped in and started helping with the sick, making sure that they were not moving from place to place, and reassured the victims ‘everything’ would be okay, the fight against the Ebola virus was easier for the health officials in the area.

Sadly, popular opinion lags behind and the ideas of writers such as Gustave le Bon in his book Psychologie des Foules are still persistent and embedded in mainstream media and thinking. His idea entails that when the structure of society is undermined by a destructive force such as a disaster or a crisis humans once more become savages, selfishly start to plunder, and divert back to barbarism. Le Bon wrote that in the face of emergency situations ‘mankind regresses a number of steps on the ladder of civilisation’. The biologist Frans de Waal calls this the veneer theory since it assumes that human morality and kindness is just a thin veneer over an otherwise nasty human nature. A great example of this persistent idea are the messages the media gave after Hurricane Katrina. Journalists reported that babies were murdered, children were raped, and that gangsters were pillaging the city of its valuables. The chef of the police said that the city was descending in anarchy, and the governor of Louisiana mentioned that crises always unearth the worst in people. 

However, researchers of the University of Delaware concluded that, in reality, the majority of the spontaneous behaviour during the aftermath of the disaster was prosocial. An armada of boats arrived as far as from Texas, hundreds of spontaneous rescue groups were started, and supply lines were created throughout the state. 

This time, the focus of global mainstream media was on medical and scientific stories in China. Images of quarantined cities, cruise ships, and areas are currently highly present in the media. Medical staff wearing protective suits and infected people in hospitals have become an everyday sight in the regular news outlet. Headlines such as ‘Armageddon is upon us’, ‘Like a Zombie Apocalypse’, and ‘Wuhan Airport Reminds Rescue Crew of a Zombie Apocalypse’ by outlets like Reuters and Bloomberg are installing fear for an apocalyptic turn of events among citizens. 

Furthermore, the World Health Organisation published an article about the ‘infodemic’ that has been spreading beside the coronavirus. Rumours that garlic and vitamin C can cure the virus, that the virus was created in a lab by a ‘deep state’ in order to control the human population, and that certain types of Asian dishes can make you sick are gaining influence. These kinds of rumours on the internet have caused people to distrust their governments, Asian-owned businesses, and neighbourhoods, and can lead to serious health issues due to misinformation about possible cures. I personally observed people who were asking on the internet if it was safe to travel to certain countries being answered: ‘Yes, but when you see Chinese people, run!’ or ‘As long you will not touch any Asians, it is okay.’ Fear-mongering on social media and the previously mentioned headlines are fuelling sinophobia (anti-China sentiment) across the globe making people believe that every other Asian individual is a potential carrier of the virus.

Polarisation, suspicion, and fear installed by these headlines, the conversations on social media, and the spread of fake news are influencing resilience and solidarity in such a way that Le Bon is partly right. The panic incited by the headlines and fear-mongering has caused people to divert back into barbarism and racism against people of Asian descent. However, the crucial difference is that Le Bon is writing about society under pressure of crises, not the ones which were not under direct threat. Humans act differently whilst feeling threatened by ‘apocalyptic events’, which is how the media describes this virus. Whilst intrinsically we are social beings that want to help and support each other, we are externally influenced by outlets that know how to trigger our negativity bias. Therefore, we have the obligation to others to show them what the media is doing, we need to work together pan-globally in order to stop this virus, and support and encourage each other in times like these. World, “jiāyóu”.

Jop Koopman is a fellow researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He is researching disasters and crises with a regional focus on Indonesia. 

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