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Francisco de Vitoria was obsessed with food. I do not refer here to his private habits, but rather to the importance he assigned to the consumption of raw food and cannibalism (real or imagined) as markers of savagery. Indeed, imaginaries of cannibalism were central to the imperialist imaginary, including that of international lawyers, and were often mobilised to signify racial difference and justify the domination over and exploitation of non-European peoples.

In this respect, there is something familiar about the current obsession and moral panic about Chinese dietary habits and their links to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, there is a crucial difference between present and past obsessions with food in international law and politics, with the former operating as a form of displacement. Let me explain: focusing on Chinese wet markets and eating habits comes with an implicit or explicit attribution of the outbreak to Asian backwardness, primitiveness and (economic, cultural, moral) under-development. However, it is not Chinese backwardness or underdevelopment that render this (and previous) coronavirus so dangerous, but quite the opposite: the country’s rapid capitalist development and increased incorporation into the global circuits of capital.

Added May 11, 2020