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This is gonna be a hard one for the cycling community to shake: a lone US cyclist is being accused by conspiracy theorists and Chinese state media of being COVID-19’s patient zero.
In an unfounded allegation that bears more than a passing resemblance to propaganda, US cyclist Maatje Benassi has been accused of bringing coronavirus to Wuhan in China. Benassi, who raced as a professional in the 2000s, currently rides for the US Military Endurance Sports Team and competed at the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019.
The source of the allegation is self-proclaimed “investigative journalist” George Webb, who posited the theory in a typo-heavy tweet and rambling YouTube video, and furthered the allegation on jumbo-sized PostIt notes in a round-table discussion with a number of other folks who don’t see enough sunlight. This round-table, Webb says, followed correct social distancing protocols between the attending parties, but closer investigation (i.e. less than a second’s viewing) reveals all parties sitting within close touching distance. Wonderful stuff.
The thrust of Webb’s allegation is that COVID-19 was manufactured by the US military, and carried to China by Benassi. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has also perpetuated a similar theory to his 300,000 Twitter followers.
The state-owned Chinese English-language newspaper, The Global Times, amplified Webb’s claim, which in turn has prompted Chinese netizens to demand that the US release health information on its delegation at the Military Games. While The Global Times has conceded that Webb’s claims “lack strong evidence”, the allegation has since spread to several other news outlets and across Chinese social media site WeChat.
Webb, who I will charitably describe as a ‘conspiracy theory nutjob’, also busted the lid wide open on links between Maatje Benassi, her husband ‘Maatt [sic]’, and Benny Benassi, an internationally-renowned Italian DJ who is accused of being the Dutch patient zero (he isn’t, not least because he is both Italian and in Italy). Tellingly, there is no evidence provided to support Webb’s assertion of any link between the cycling Benassi and the ‘Satisfaction’-spinning Benassi, other than their surnames being the same. A tantalising additional link to US pop star and domestic abuser, Chris Brown, also goes unaddressed.
China has sought to downplay its role in the outbreak of coronavirus, which first emerged in Wuhan in October 2019 before spreading across the world. The way that the virus has been labelled has proven a source of considerable political tension and brinkmanship, with Donald Trump’s insistence until recently on calling it a ‘Chinese virus’. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reportedly continuing along this tack, with sources telling ABC News that the G7 was unable to sign off on a statement this week because of Pompeo’s insistence that it included the phrase ‘Wuhan virus’. As a result of the US Government’s use of such language, there are reports emerging that anti-Asian racism is sharply on the rise in the US.
It seems likely that in this case, there’s another unintended consequence of the US’ weaponisation of language: the stirrings of a misinformation campaign from Chinese media attempting to pin the blame back on the accuser.
Scapegoating of minorities can have severe and devastating consequences, as has been observed throughout history, and language can play a significant role in both obfuscation and demonisation.
Before getting too carried away with apportioning blame, perhaps the west could take a look at itself. The Spanish Flu, according to some historians, originated in Kansas. Ross River Virus originated in Queensland, Australia. Idealistic it may be, but in this moment it doesn’t matter where coronavirus came from. It’s here now, and the only way that we’re all going to get through this is by banding together, rather than splitting apart and throwing people – whether a single cyclist, or an entire country – under the bus in the interest of political point-scoring.
As for Benassi: that race in October didn’t go to plan in more ways than one. She crashed in the closing kilometres of the road race, hitting her head on the ground and battling through to the finish line in last place. “Nothing went smooth, but I said, forget it, I’m just going to finish,” she said after the race.
Hopefully this conspiracy theory and the virus that gave birth to it finish up pretty soon, too.