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VIDEO DOI: https://doi.org/10.48448/38ds-sx54


AAA Annual Meeting 2021

November 18, 2021

Baltimore, United States

Truth and Responsibility in the Heat of an Outbreak: The Emergence of COVID-19 in China


medical anthropology



The People’s Republic of China was the site of the world's first outbreak of COVID-19 and also the site of the world’s first mass containment effort. More than a year into the pandemic, China’s containment measures remain some of the world’s most enduring and successful. What the Chinese government did to control COVID-19 in the winter and early spring of 2020 foretold, in ways that few initially anticipated, what was going to happen in the rest of the world. Planes stopped coming and going, stores and restaurants closed down, highway checkpoints were put in place, and all over the country ordinary people hoarded food and cowered in their apartments, anxiously posting their travails on social media. And yet, unlike in most of the rest of the world, the measures worked • and continued to work. After the initial outbreak subsided in China, Covid-19 ravaged the globe, but mostly left China alone. For all of its apparent successes, the dramatic disease control response that China undertook also has been criticized, both outside and inside China, for its authoritarian tactics, its lack of transparency, and ultimately its failure to keep the new coronavirus from breaching the borders of China and upending billions of people’s lives. This panel will examine China’s early response to COVID-19, and the global reaction to this response, to explore questions about power, truth, and responsibility in epidemic control and global health politics. In January 2020, when Covid first appeared, whose responsibility was it to control a virus capable of spreading around the world? Who can or should decide when or how to initiate mass containment measures like mass quarantines and border closings, and how do geopolitical inequalities shape this decision-making process in different places? What truths did the Chinese government, the international media, the global health community, and ordinary citizens create and disseminate about Covid-19’s origins in the early days of the pandemic, and why? How have the ways in which these truths have been circulated and shared changed global approaches to epidemic response? How are global power dynamics involving China’s relationship with the rest of the world manifesting and transforming as a result of this pandemic? This roundtable will focus on a close examination of the early months of COVID-19, when the virus we all now know intimately was still considered a “Chinese” problem. Medical anthropologists who have published extensively about previous outbreaks in China and beyond • including SARS, H1N1 influenza, HIV/AIDS and Ebola • will attempt to answer these questions and others that audience members raise. They will be joined by two graduate students who experienced the early weeks of COVID-19 in China firsthand. Each presenter will draw upon their own expertise in studying previous outbreaks, and their experiences with the current pandemic, to present an analysis of the COVID-19 outbreak as it played out in China in early 2020. Senior scholars with expertise in global health and in China studies will provide further commentary, and then the floor will be opened for questions.


Transcript English (automatic)

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