The Origins of COVID-19
China and Global Capitalism
Li Zhang


Contents and Abstracts
1 Prelude
chapter abstract

This chapter is a prelude to the current pandemic of COVID-19, focusing on SARS and its aftermath. It introduces the scholarly and political debates this book addresses, alongside the interdisciplinary theoretical framework, methodological approach, and data analyzed in the book. Then it examines the conditions that give rise to novel coronaviruses with pandemic potential in China, and the modernist responses to this growing risk of coronavirus spill overs from bats to humans. The chapter shows that the "lessons learned" from the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 not only failed to prevent the emergence of COVID-19, but continue to overlook structural factors that require critical examination. In particular, the responses to SARS reinforced biosecurity frameworks of global and public health that interlink biomedical science, state making, and global capitalism in ways that deepen conditions for novel infectious diseases to emerge and become pandemic in the first place.

2 Emergence
chapter abstract

This chapter examines how the COVID-19 outbreak emerged in Wuhan during December 2019. The chapter argues that urban expansion and industrial modernization in Wuhan explains why it could become the site for an infectious disease outbreak that could then become epidemic throughout China and even a global pandemic. Two hypotheses about the origins of COVID-19 are examined: first, the spill over of a bat coronavirus to humans through intermediary species, and second, human infection through direct exposure to infected bats. In both cases, the chapter argues that rapid infrastructure construction, expansion of wildlife farming and smuggling, intensification of mining, eco-tourism, e-commerce, migration, and even the invasive surveillance of wildlife for novel pathogens (or "virus hunting") expand the human-wildlife interface in ways that increase the risks of spill overs of novel infectious diseases, and the risks that local outbreaks can become global pandemics.

3 Emergency
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the period between New Year 2020 and the lockdown of Wuhan on Spring Festival Eve (January 23), focusing on the hesitation of the local government to trigger the institutional alarms that were created in the aftermath of SARS, and early debates about how to understand and control the burgeoning outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease. While scrutinizing suppression of information about the outbreak, the chapter argues that the local government's failure to contain the outbreak resulted not from simple authoritarian repression, but rather from the entanglement of state, capitalist, and biomedical science interests. The chapter then shows that the key turning point in the government and society response to the emergency during January 18-23 resulted from various forces from the top down from high-level experts, party officials, and the international community, and from the bottom up among the masses.

4 Surge
chapter abstract

This chapter traces the surge of state control and mass mobilization within China during February and March 2020, a period marked by social tension, anxiety, and debates about who was to blame for the crisis, challenging the legitimacy of the Chinese government at home and abroad. The response of the Chinese state, business elites, and society, therefore, unfolded through their intersecting interests in maintaining political stability, avoiding economic disruption, and providing for public health security and national pride. The chapter argues this concurrence of interests accounts for the effective control of the epidemic in China, but also reinforces a narrow biomedical understanding of the crisis that entrenches state biosecurity over epidemic prevention. As examination of the origins of the disease yielded to epidemic control, the foundation was laid for a recovery that reinforces structural factors that give rise to emergent diseases in the first place.

5 Victory
chapter abstract

This chapter covers the period between March and April 2020, when China brought the epidemic under control domestically, even as it advanced into a global pandemic. Geopolitical tensions influenced how the Chinese state and society characterized their victory and efforts towards recovery, as the pandemic was transformed from a domestic crisis in China to an opportunity for international leadership. But the chapter argues comparison in narrow epidemiological terms between China's successful containment with dramatic failures abroad obscures the systematic problems emerging from global capitalism. The advancement of surveillance technology and the imbrication of consumerism with renewed investments and faith in modern science and technology (the key features that characterize China's victory over COVID-19 and that drive its recovery) also reinforce conditions that give rise to emergent diseases in the first place, and that enabled a local outbreak to become a global pandemic.

6 Persistence
chapter abstract

This chapter concludes with a discussion of the geopolitical tensions and persistence of COVID-19 in China into August 2020, and a critique of the persistence of the factors that are intended to establish public health, biosecurity, and drive economic "recovery" but ultimately reinforce the risk of future pandemics. These include the industrialization of livestock and wildlife farming, the modernization and concentration of agri-food supply chains and markets, the commodification of traditional Chinese medicine and healthcare, urbanization, the expansion of mining, infrastructure, and tourism into remote regions, and blind faith in biomedical sciences, surveillance, and interventions. The chapter argues that we must replace geopolitical competition and blame-games with internationalist cooperation, restructure healthcare away from private profit and towards the common good, and transform our understanding of pandemics from narrow technocratic and biomedical frameworks to encompass the complex entanglements of political, economic, ecological, and social factors at play.

7 Epilogue
chapter abstract

The epilogue revisits debate about the origins of COVID-19, discussing hypotheses proposed by the joint WHO-China investigation, and argues such investigations must address the structural conditions of global capitalism that give rise to novel infectious diseases with pandemic potential, and recognize the limitations of biomedical approaches and ecomodernist frameworks that conceal the urgent need for more structural transformations. Then the epilogue looks forward to the deployment of vaccines and the rise of coronavirus mutations that undermine their effectiveness, emphasizing that public debate and research should extend beyond biomedical concerns and the particularities of China to focus on the structural conditions of global capitalism. Ultimately, global public health is not derived from the "most modern" countries and biomedical practices, or even the "most effective governance strategies", but rather from the capacity to transcend global capitalism and geopolitical competition in the interest of socioecological justice, sustainability, and the shared destiny of humanity.