A Daoist take on the Corona pandemic narratives

A Daoist take on the Corona pandemic narratives

By Aileen Schuurmans 

This is the second article of the series on the narratives of state leaders about the Covid-19 pandemic. In the first article of the series, which was published last week, it was shown how many, mostly Western, state leaders presented the crisis as an uphill battle which all states must individually face. This leads to a lack of solidarity between states and limits the possible measures to deal with the crisis. This article will present an alternative to this narrative by taking an approach based on Chinese International Relations theory (IR). An earlier article published by JASON already demonstrated some of the differences between the Chinese and the Western way of responding to the Covid-19 crisis [1]. In this article, we take it a bit further by moving beyond the behavior of China as a state, but instead focusing on an approach based on traditional Chinese, or Daoist culture. 

Yin cannot exist without Yang: an introduction of Daoist IR

Daoist IR differs from traditional Western IR in the sense that Western IR is based on the assumption of individualistic rationality, whereas Daoist IR is based on the idea of relationality. IR based on relationality is based on three assumptions. First, everything is interrelated. The world is viewed as existing of continuous events and ongoing relations, rather than substantial separate objects and discrete entities. Second, actors are, and can only be, “actors-in-relations” [2]. There is no independent identity of the self, it is constructed and reconstructed in relation with others. For this reason, the relational view argues that relations between states or other actors should be studied, not the actors itself. Third, these relations between actors are dynamic and ever changing, they form processes. International society itself is a process as well; it is always moving and transforming. 

This idea of relationality is based on the Daoist dialectics of yin and yang. Yin is most often described as the feminine, and includes aspects such as cold, soft and weak, whereas yang represents the masculine and aspects such as hot, hard, and strong [3]. In this relationship one side does not dominate the other, instead they complement each other. The relationship is also not static but constantly moving; both parts constantly interact with each other and both carry a part of the other in itself. In this way, the Daoist dialectics differ from Western, Hegelian dialectics, in which both parts form static opposites of each other [3]. We can apply this model of relationality and Daoist dialectics to the story that is told about the Corona pandemic. This can be done through the following steps. 

A Daoist story about the Corona pandemic

First, relationality teaches us that everything is related with each other, there is no sharp distinction between the domestic and the international sphere. The Coronavirus pandemic is an international issue, which does not follow state borders. This means that states, and their inhabitants, need to realize that all human beings are connected with each other and that there is no distinct Self and Other. In order to understand this, we need to find the Other in ourselves [3]. This ‘Other in ourselves’ can be, for instance, immigrants and their descendants that live in our states and recognizing that they, and their culture, are as much part of our states as other citizens. In this way we can recognize the Other in the Self, and realize that problems far away are also our problems.

Secondly, it is important to realize that there are alternative narratives possible. These could be, for instance, narratives based on interconnectedness and solidarity. More significantly, however, other conceptions of health could guide us towards new solutions. In different places of the world, people have a different conception of what being healthy entails, but only the Western conception of health has become mainstream. For instance, both the Ayurvedic tradition and Chinese medicine are based on the idea that illness results from an imbalance in the body that causes a disturbance or blockage of the life energy [3]. According to these traditions, it is not the coronavirus itself that causes people to get ill or die, it is how resistant they are to the virus and how healthy they already were. The solution to the pandemic may therefore not lie in finding a vaccine, but could also be by preventing the spread of the virus through strengthening the health and resilience of people [4]. Ideas like these show that there is a myriad of conceptions of health, identity, power and politics in different areas of the world that are similar to each other, which demonstrates that the Western conception is not as mainstream as it often seems. This also means that it is possible to divert from the traditional Western conception.

Thirdly, when we recognize that we are all interrelated and that there are alternative ideas, there is room for interbeing. Particularly during this crisis, it would be useful to recognize that we are all in this together and that we are all stuck in the same situation. This recognition, then, can help us to identify ways in which we can act compassionately and ethically. For instance, we can explore how we can find a truly global solution for this global problem.

In this way, Daoist IR presents an alternative narrative about the pandemic to the ones used by most state leaders. A narrative in which the yin of vulnerability and compassion can complement the yang of doing and heroic action, and in which there is room for flexibility and alternative ideas. Applying Daoist IR to the current crisis therefore demonstrates what the effect of using non-Western IR traditions could be and how it enables us to imagine new solutions to current problems. It shows that there are alternatives to the mainstream way of thinking, for instance about health, solidarity and the value of immigrants. It thus reminds us that different traditions from other places in the world can have an entirely different outlook on things, while simultaneously reminding us that regardless of these differences, we are all humans that struggle with similar problems. 

[1] https://jasoninstitute.com/2020/07/12/the-third-person-effect-in-italy-in-the-covid-19-crisis/

[2] Qin, Y. (2016). A relational theory of world politics. International Studies Review, 18(1), 33-47.

[3] Ling, L. H. (2013). The Dao of world politics: Towards a post-Westphalian, worldist international relations. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

[4] Panda, A. K., Dixit, A. K., Rout, S., Mishra, B., Purad, U. V., & Kar, S. (2020). Ayurveda Practitioners Consensus to Develop Strategies for Prevention and Treatment of Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19). Journal of Ayurveda and Integrated Medical Sciences, 5(1), 98-106.

[Image] https://pxhere.com/en/photo/612173