Object Lessons of a Pandemic is a new series looking at the COVID-19 pandemic through the history and meaning of the objects that surround it — all the strange, ordinary and essential things that the rise of coronavirus has made us think about in new and unexpected ways. From everyday household items to inventions that have become indispensable, these are the objects COVID-19 will be remembered by.
At the very end of the movie Contagion, a flash-back to “day zero” reveals the origin of the deadly disease that becomes a catastrophic global pandemic: An infected bat inadvertently shared its food with a pig, which is slaughtered and served at a casino in Macau, whose head chef shakes hands with Gwyneth Paltrow. For a long time, in the early days of its inception and spread, it seemed that the novel coronavirus had emerged under similar circumstances.
We heard about live animals in “wet markets” in Wuhan. We heard about Chinese food safety standards and market conditions that bred disease. And we heard about “bat soup,” a delicacy apparently responsible for causing COVID-19.
The myth that bat soup caused the coronavirus was debunked quickly. In January, when the virus still largely seemed to be a Chinese problem, Foreign Policy ran an article under the title “Bat Soup Didn’t Cause the Wuhan Virus.” The story criticized a fake viral video showing a Chinese woman eating a bat whole with chopsticks in Wuhan, and which pointed out that, although bats may have had something to do with COVID-19, there’s no reason to believe that “chowing down on the creatures of the night was involved” in its creation or spread at all.
The earliest victims had no contact with the Wuhan market previously assumed to be the epicentre of the disease. Bat doesn’t even tend to be eaten in Wuhan; the viral video was actually set in Palau. As Dr. Syra Madad told Business Insider, the idea that COVID came from bat soup “is absolutely not correct.”
And yet, the “bat soup” misconception proved strangely tenacious, and as late as the end of March, references to Chinese culinary habits were still rampant in the news and among public figures, including Republican senator John Cornyn, of Texas, who said in a press conference that “China is to blame” for the coronavirus pandemic because of “the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” The American president, meanwhile, continues to refer to COVID as “the Chinese virus,” obstinately refusing to ditch the rhetoric despite exhortations from the World Health Organization and others. WHO advises against referring to diseases by nationality, in an effort “to minimize unnecessary negative effects” on a country and its people. In a recent address, Donald Trump maintained to reporters that, simply, “it’s not racist at all.”
In many ways, the bat soup myth represents the collective fear, confusion and panic that have surrounded the coronavirus pandemic since it first emerged late last year. The outbreak of the disease was shrouded in mystery and disinformation from the beginning, making it difficult to appreciate the scale of the threat and all too easy to look elsewhere to assign blame.
One of the latent dangers of COVID-19 is that we’ll come out on the other side of this crisis more frightened of and hostile toward other countries, and that “foreign disease” will become the watchword for a new populist movement built around isolationism. When all of this is over, will we remember that bat soup was nothing more than a myth without truth? Or will the lie become a symbol that infects the popular imagination?