Highly Contagious: Coronavirus, Racism, and Xenophobia

Highly Contagious: Coronavirus, Racism, and Xenophobia

It’s time to address the social perils of the coronavirus.

It appears the coronavirus is not the only contagious bug — xenophobia and racism, fake news, and conspiracy theories are now proliferating on the internet, in the wake of the virus outbreak. 

Media perception

The overwhelming and disproportionate media coverage and public discourse of the coronavirus, coupled with the tendency of media to sensationalize, continue to contribute to rising fear of the virus. This has led to irrational acts among the public, including spreading questionable rumours and even overt discriminatory acts against ethnic Chinese. At best, some appear comical; and at worst, they cross the fine line between humour and hate; and humanity and insanity. 

With the voluminous information (and misinformation) bombarding us every second in the face of this global health emergency, it is of utmost importance that we exercise critical thinking and information literacy in our evaluation of the situation. 

Absolute numbers do not carry contextual significance: while there are over 24,000 people infected and more than 400 deaths to date, the fatality rate has been less than 3%, as compared to the 10% in SARS (though it is too soon to affirm fatality rates). There are, of course, many other factors to be taken into account, such as the infection rate, the severity of impact on the infected, rate of recovery and the extent of contagion, among others. 

While we should be aware of the possibility of statistical manipulations, this is not to downplay the potential severity and impact of the virus, which has been reported to be still too premature to determine. Rather, these play a critical role in fuelling panic and fear-mongering among the public who are contextually unaware, which essentially does no good to the situation at hand.

Also read: Facts Vs. Myths: What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

Anti-Chinese sentiments on social media

Angry imperatives from citizens pressuring their governments to ban Chinese from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), images of hostile signs against Chinese, and racist jokes pervade the internet. Widespread racism against ethnic Chinese and East Asians at large has been reported in many countries in the West. It is evident that the coronavirus has sparked anti-Chinese sentiments globally.

Much of the hatred is directed at the Chinese food culture, especially since the virus allegedly originated from bats from a wildlife market in Wuhan.

However, it seems the coronavirus is merely a scapegoat for deep-seated anti-Chinese sentiments. It appears to be used to falsely justify the prejudice against the Chinese, oftentimes unexplained and unconscious, largely as a result of Western media. 

Anti-Chinese sentiments originate from a long history of hostility with the West. Deep anti-Chinese sentiments existed in the West, and manifested in laws of exclusion — the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States in 1882 and the White Australia policy in 1901 are examples of such laws. This was further perpetuated in Western media, where Chinese are often portrayed as uncultured and inferior to the West. Western dominance in media means that they have greater power in influencing audiences and perpetuating stereotypes through media. As such, this has instilled anti-Chinese sentiments and created unconscious bias. 

As a result, China (and the East) is often perceived as ‘uncivilized’. The lens with which we use to view the East is often tainted with Western perspectives. The disdain and revulsion with which we perceive Chinese food culture, or even other stereotypes of PRC Chinese as dirty with bad hygiene are stereotypes which have a long-history of colonial-era stereotypes. 

Furthermore, such generalizations cannot be made to the huge population of 1.4 billion Chinese, what more the Chinese diaspora existing on pretty much every continent. Evidently, the ignorant, condescending comments scattered across the internet are uncalled for.

An important point to note is the need to distinguish the PRC Chinese from the State, and not to hold the people accountable to any acts (or the lack of) carried out by the PRC state, which may be deemed irresponsible.

Citizens of Wuhan lining up outside of a drug store to buy masks during the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak | Image credit: Wikipedia

Global government mitigation measures

Central to the ongoing discourse of racism and xenophobia is the decision by governments across the globe to impose temporary travel restrictions to and from China. Governments have denied entry to foreign visitors with recent travel history to mainland China, and imposed quarantine on citizens returning from mainland China.

Meanwhile, many airlines have temporarily and indefinitely suspended flights servicing mainland China. Nevertheless, many countries have organized airlifts from Wuhan to repatriate their citizens, such as Japan, the United States and Singapore, among many others. 

These are all rational decisions made by governments, in attempts to contain the virus. By preventing entry of non-citizens with travel history to highly infected areas such as Hubei or mainland China, it is not racist or unfair. The decision does not lie upon prejudice against the Chinese, but applies to individuals of any nationality with the aforementioned travel history. Amid such widespread uncertainty, the onus is on governments to exercise discernment, such as to provide a safeguard for citizens of the country against potential infection, evermoreso in the face of a global disaster. 

Also read: Wuhan Virus Update: All Countries and Airlines Imposing Travel Bans and Suspending Flights to China

However, the truth is that the issue at hand is far more complex, even as it intersects with broader spheres of politics and economics. There are implications and impacts that are beyond that of health, which will potentially be more enduring.

Perhaps in times of a global crisis like this, the least — or most — we can do is to be kinder with our words.

About Author

Rachel Ngu
Rachel Ngu

Culture enthusiast, avid reader, and bubble tea aficionado.


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