The contagious xenophobia of Coronavirus

Since the coronavirus outbreak emerged late last year in Wuhan, China, there has been a dramatic increase in global concern as the number of people affected grows daily. There have been over 30,000 reported illnesses and 635 deaths in mainland China, spreading across Asia to Europe, North America and Australia. China’s response has both been commended by the WHO and condemned as a failure of governance by the public; while Chinese cities have been quarantined, borders sealed and travelling banned, there were great delays in the primary response to the outbreak. 

But the outbreak of this disease has also provoked something else: blind racism. A brief scroll through the Facebook page ‘Edifess’ and a spectrum of arguments emerge. Some appear to tolerate and justify xenophobia; ‘Please be patient with us [in our fears]’ one student from the UK asks of those who are Chinese. Others agree that this prejudice is a product of ‘fear-mongering in the media.’ 

This is not the first time that xenophobia and public health have interlinked. As Europeans colonised parts of Africa and Asia, it was seen as walking into the risk of disease and death, with West Africa becoming known as ‘the white man’s grave’. More recently, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 killed 11,310 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It saw a rise in discrimination in a Dallas neighbourhood in the US, with one of the nine infected Americans visiting the area. 

Some have blamed the increase in racism on the surge of nationalism in the West, with the novelty of the virus amplifying the primary fear of an epidemic. This has led to a French newspaper publishing an article with the caption ‘yellow alert’ next to a picture of a Chinese woman wearing a face mask, and students being attacked for wearing masks in both the UK and Berlin. 

Science is no longer guiding people but rather the presumption that anyone from East Asia is infected and contagious. This is a result of ignorance. The virus is said to have originated from a group of stallholders in a Wuhan seafood market, where it was thought to be contracted from contact with animals. The illegal market had been selling wild animals including bats and snakes, which some Westerners like to stereotype as a staple in Asian diets; ‘They have done things that are legally banned and [most] Chinese citizens do not share and criticise such behaviours’, a student wrote on Facebook.

The WHO has said that the virus is now under control. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has declared a global emergency not because of ‘what is happening in China but what is happening in other countries.’ What is more pressing, is if the virus finds its way to a country that cannot cope, as was the case with Ebola in West Africa. Meanwhile, another virus poses a much greater threat to people: the flu. Relatively much more dangerous, it has killed 39 children in the past few months in the US. This isn’t to say that the Coronavirus should not be taken seriously, it has had a devastating impact in China, but its greater publicity has stirred paranoia and xenophobia towards Asians. 

All Asians are not Chinese and all Chinese have not been infected with the virus. It has no nationality and can be transmitted to anyone regardless of their race. Unnecessary racism fuels public anxieties. We must separate the disease from its origins and think of those whom the virus has affected. It bears no justification for racism.

Image: Chinanews.com via Wikimedia Commons 

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The Student Newspaper 2016