Catherine Loyd dissects the racist narratives that have emerged around the Corona Virus.
Disinformation surrounding the coronavirus and its source has dominated global headlines in recent weeks. The current discourse has exposed a deep-seated anti-chinese sentiment, one that is morally reprehensible. Symptomatic of this xenophobia is an active hostility towards the Asian community in which fear-mongering has fuelled an informal boycott of places the Asian community would typically frequent. Chinatown’s streets have been abandoned and Asian citizens have been subject to racial profiling.
The coronavirus has been racialized as a Chinese virus, breeding ethnic anxieties that have been informed by disinformation and sensationalist media coverage. These deeper prejudices are indicative of a much larger issue at hand: a preexisting xenophobia. Festering below the surface, the virus has given impetus for true colours to be shown and lines to be drawn. Mass hysteria, stemming from a fear of the coronavirus’ unknown cause has conflated race with the virus. If anything salvageable comes of this, it is the lasting impression that: Our actions should be informed by concrete fact, not clouded by fear or prejudice.
The correlation made between virus and race is steeped in racism
Having Coronavirus declared an international public health emergency, the floodgates have opened to a cascade of speculative theories. Twitter and Facebook have publicised conspiracies that the Asian community and their genetics are more susceptible to the virus, even linking the traditional Chinese consumption of ‘exotic’ meats to its spread. Others speculate Chinese wet markets as coronavirus’s source. There’s even a theory that the virus was developed in a Chinese lab to function as a bioweapon. The latter of which led to an innocent Chinese scientist’s malicious doxing. Implicitly, these conspiracies harbour a rampant, prejudice-tipped paranoia and in turn become justification for blatant racial profiling and heinous discrimination. Australia made more explicit their xenophobia when they forced citizens of Asian descent who had recently been to China’s Hubei province, into quarantine on an offshore island for two weeks. Our choices are being coloured by fear, with the virus now being weaponized as a platform to spew racist rhetoric as fact.
The western world’s othering of Asian communities is historic. Stigmatised as carriers of disease, narratives of Asian immorality and uncleanliness date back to the 1800s. Since time immemorial, ethnicities have been assigned the role of scapegoat for public health disasters by a white power structure. Growing Asian populations spurred racial anxieties and the ‘Yellow peril’ narrative of that time – which classed their community as racially inferior – was used as a device to justify Asian exclusion. New York Times’ David Brooks rightly said in the wake of the Ebola crisis, that public health concerns expose the ‘weakness in the fabric of our culture’. That weakness is our possession of prejudice and how we value determined by race. The outbreak of Ebola and the Coronavirus are alike in that sense, as during both crises individual victims have been dehumanised and their experiences racialised. Ebola is now synonymous with “blackness” as is the Coronavirus with the “orient”. The correlation made between virus and race is steeped in racism and is a staggering example of how we run to blame those once considered lesser than us. Just as the Ebola crisis revived imagery of the ‘Dark Continent’, the Coronavirus revives imagery of the ‘Yellow Peril’. It is clear that this is not harking back to a darker past, but unmasking a dark present and arguably, an even darker future if we don’t bring change.
It is clear that this is not harking back to a darker past, but unmasking a dark present and arguably, an even darker future if we don’t bring change.
There are parallels to be drawn between the two outbreaks. Both prompted travel bans in which travel to and from a country plagued with the virus has been forcibly halted. There is nothing that medically differentiates the vulnerability of any race to the Coronavirus, just like Ebola yet, both have fallen prey to racialisation. In short, the fault lies in prioritising white bodies that are still seen as higher valued. Even after the rising death toll in Western Africa, Americans were among the first to be dosed with the experimental anti-ebola drug Zmapp. The racist xenophobia reached ludicrous levels when Obama was likened to Ebola in a hashtag that was coined #Obola. A public health concern should never be hijacked as an excuse to voice concerns about the presence of foreigners. Politics has unveiled its ugliness once again.