A new strain of coronavirus emerged sometime in November 2019, and within weeks a cluster of patients began to be admitted to hospitals in Wuhan with severe pneumonia, most of them linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. China's seemingly effective containment of the first stage of the epidemic, in glaring contrast with the uncontrolled spread in Europe and the United States, was heralded as a testament to the Chinese Communist Party's unparalleled command over the biomedical sciences, population, and economy. Conversely, much academic and public debate about the origins of the virus focuses on the supposedly "backwards" cultural practice of consuming wild animals and the perceived problem of authoritarianism suppressing information about the outbreak until it was too late.
The Origins of COVID-19, by Li Zhang, shifts debate away from narrow cultural, political, or biomedical frameworks, emphasizing that we must understand the origins of emerging diseases with pandemic potential (such as SARS and COVID-19) in the more complex and structural entanglements of state-making, science and technology, and global capitalism. She argues that both narratives, that of China's victory and the racist depictions of its culpability, do not address—and even aggravate—these larger forces that degrade the environment and increase the human-wildlife interface through which novel pathogens spill over into humans and may rapidly expand into global pandemics.
About the author
Li Zhang is Visiting Assistant Professor of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
"Detailing global entanglements of science, politics, and corporate interests, Li Zhang offers a refreshingly holistic and balanced account of China's experience of COVID-19. She constructively advocates replacing paradigmatic market-based biosecurity responses with precautionary public health programs, including eliminating wild animal trading, and factory farming, to reduce exposure to zoonotic viruses."
—Philip McMichael, Cornell University
"It's hard to imagine a more timely or penetrating analysis of the COVID-19 crisis. This concise work exposes how capitalism launched the SARS-CoV-2 virus into the world, and why science alone is unlikely to prevent the next pandemic. The Origins of COVID-19 is a sobering tale of the disasters that follow when competition is valued over cooperation and sustainability is forgotten."
—Ruth Rogaski, Vanderbilt University
"Li Zhang's book shines an important light on how our modern industrial food production practices and ecological destruction are distorting nature and leading to the emergence of new zoonotic infectious diseases like SARS, COVID-19, and virulent influenzas. She urges us to move beyond a narrow focus on the biomedical, cultural, or political factors in China that contributed to its rapid spread from a localized epidemic to a global pandemic and to instead unpack the way science-drive agribusiness and the human encroachment on animal habitats lead to the mixing of people and animals and give rise to new virulent emerging diseases."
—Joan Kaufman, Lecturer in Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School
"In The Origins of COVID-19, Zhang rigorously combines science and politics to show that this pandemic should not be blamed on China, but rather on the structural conditions of global capitalism, modernization, and uncritical scientism worldwide. This is a major and unique contribution from a Chinese scholar leading international debates of a controversial topic towards a much-needed objective discussion."
—Sun Jin, Professor of Politics, Beijing Normal University
"In a time of profound confusion and escalating misreporting and disinformation, Li Zhang's new book is a rare oasis of lucid, serious discussion of China's predicament in and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which are shown to be inextricably linked to the country's biopolitical transformation, technoscientific doxa, and place within global capitalism."
—Christos Lynteris, Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology, University of St. Andrews
"This book offers an absorbing account of the key events surrounding COVID-19 as they continue to unfold across the world. It walks us through competing origin stories, and in doing so situates the pandemic within global capitalist practices ranging from the industrialization of agriculture and mining to the commodification of healthcare. This is a timely reminder that as new viruses emerge, they also reproduce and sharpen existing unevenness in our inextricably entangled world."
—Mei Zhan, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine
"This is a thought-provoking contribution to the current debate on the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of an alternative solution to future pandemic risks, Zhang calls for a new paradigm in food production that is diametrically different from the current capitalist mode of production. Indeed, as long as the latter continues, the timebomb of future pandemic outbreaks would continue to tick. This is a must-read for policy-makers and for all who are concerned with public health, environmental protection, and food production."
—Peter J. Li, Associate Professor of East Asian Politics, University of Houston-Downtown