What caused coronavirus?

Middle Israel: Jews should be the first to condemn plague-libeling like that which Donald Trump just did to China.

U.S. President Trump holds news conference on the coronavirus outbreak at the White House in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS)
U.S. President Trump holds news conference on the coronavirus outbreak at the White House in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With the Black Death harvesting thousands daily, France’s King Philip VI ordered a study that would answer the question all were asking those days: what caused the plague?
Conducted by the University of Paris, the report that “became the official version” and was also accepted internationally concluded the pestilence was caused by the alignment of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars on a certain day in 1345 (Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, 1978).
Laughable as this may sound to us today, most of us are not much better equipped to explain our plague than those medieval scholars were to understand theirs. This, of course, does not prevent many of the unequipped from fingering assorted culprits, as corona’s hysteria unsettles all.
ONE SUCH slander victim is China.
It was one thing for an obscure rabbi to claim last month, “based” on jumbled biblical texts, that the pandemic was caused by Chinese eaters consuming bats, snakes and other species the Torah deems impure. It is an entirely different thing for the president of the United States to attach the plague to China, as he did the other day in a tweet about industries “particularly affected by the Chinese Virus.”
True, with Donald Trump you don’t know whether such a burp reflects ignorance or malice; either way, the result of his verbal recklessness is libel, and no one should know this better than us Jews.
Back in the Black Death, mobs awash with mourning, fear and superstition stormed and leveled some 300 Jewish communities, convinced that the Jews caused the plague.
The accusation was so outlandish that the pope of the day, Clement IV, issued a statement absolving the Jews, reasoning that the plague affected them like everyone else. The mob, however, was unimpressed, and Jews were murdered by the thousands, including 2,000 in Strasbourg alone, all burned alive.
Now the same impressionism and benightedness are being used to nonchalantly blame the current plague on the Chinese. It is therefore our Jewish duty in these days of awe to recall what was once done to our forebears and condemn what is now being done to the Chinese.
This would have been different had Trump produced evidence that the virus is “Chinese,” or had he discussed a particular aspect of Beijing’s organizational response to the crisis. Apparently, Trump was out to divert attention from his own dereliction, first in underplaying the approaching plague by saying “it’s one person coming in from China and we have it under control,” then by saying “we’re very close to a vaccine,” and then by announcing he closed the border with Europe, which he didn’t.
A SECOND culprit some now cite, with better argumentation, is globalization.
“As the world becomes more and more interconnected, the potential for pandemics will inevitably become a bigger and bigger issue,” wrote Columbia University geneticist Joseph D. Terwilliger.
That is obviously true for the outbreak’s speed. The Black Plague took 10 years to travel from China to Britain, as Hebrew University historian Yuval Noah Harari noted this week. Similarly, the current plague’s sudden economic shock to the entire world was impossible before globalization.
However, this is no reason to stigmatize globalization as this plague’s cause. The Justinian Plague and the Black Death also crossed continents and seas; the difference was only in the pace.
Yes, psychologically the modern plague is not that different from those of previous ages. It still shocks, it still dislocates, it is still disconcerting, it still makes people recall God, and it still makes many wonder what the Almighty might be telling us as he lets the angel of death wave his sickle far and wide.
That is why it went without saying that some would rush to portray the plague not as China’s shame, and not as globalization’s bane, but as God’s will.
“God is punishing them,” explained this week Zimbabwe’s Defense Minister Oppah Muchinguri, referring to the Western powers that sanctioned her country’s economy, and “they are staying indoors now while their economy is screaming like what they did to ours.”
And on a less vindictive and more somber note, respected Catholic historian Roberto de Mattei said coronavirus is upon mankind because of “the men of the Church in their collective whole,” referring to recent years’ scandals involving Catholic clergy.
Speaking in a videotaped lecture about the plague, and noting that Italy’s churches will be shuttered this Easter, and that “even Saint Peter’s Basilica is closed,” de Mattei wondered: “How can we not see, in what the coronavirus is producing, a symbolic consequence of the self-destruction of the Church?”
Such lamentations can now be expected to proliferate, the way Rabbi Meir Mazuz, who heads Yeshivat Kisse Rahamim in Bnei Brak, said last week that God sent us corona as punishment for the era’s gay parades. “Nature’s creator takes revenge from whoever violates nature,” he diagnosed.
Theses like the African minister’s, the Catholic historian’s and the Israeli rabbi’s about God’s deeds and motivations are, of course, equally speculative, and thus cancel each other out. That is why attributing corona to God is no better than blaming it on China or globalization.
And so, wondering who done it, all we can say is that a bug done it; that a human race this big is at war with a bug this small; a bug that strikes regardless of race, land or faith; a germ that is uniting a fractured and conflicted world, and thus returns it to the moment when its ancestors resolved to build the Tower of Babel, to the last day on which “everyone on earth” spoke “the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1).
For anyone overly impressed with our generation’s discovery, knowledge, invention, creation or wealth, that should be humbling enough.