The novel coronavirus, which came to doctors’ attention in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, now has 75,000 reported cases and has claimed over 2,000 lives in China. The virus has spread outside of China, with cases reported in the U.S., Australia, France, Germany and the UK. There have been six reported deaths as a result of the illness outside of China – in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, France and the Philippines.


Understandably, fear is prevalent at the moment. We cannot help but recall previous outbreaks such as bird flu in 2003 and swine flu in 2009. In the midst of this recent outbreak, we might find ourselves more germaphobic than usual: flinching when a stranger in the street sneezes or keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer on your person at all times. While paying extra attention to hygiene is normal and even healthy, there is an insidious side to this newfound germaphobia. Xenophobia has often been a symptom of global outbreaks of infectious disease, and the coronavirus is no exception. 


There have been a plethora of reports of racism against people of Chinese origin since the coronavirus has entered the public radar. Even those who haven’t been to China for many years or are of a different Asian ethnicity entirely, have been targeted by the public and press alike. In France, a local newspaper came under fire after it published incredibly racist headlines such as “Alerte Jaune” (“Yellow Alert”) and “Le Peril Jaune?” (“Yellow Peril?”). French Asians took to Twitter using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus in response to these headlines, as well as sharing racist interactions they had experienced in public. 


In the UK, many people of Asian backgrounds have spoken out about their experiences. A food writer from Burma posted photos on the Tube of people standing rather than sitting next to her, and Chinese-born Dr. Zhou recounted an experience he had in an elevator in Gatwick airport where a woman muttered to her husband, “they should wear their masks.” Dr. Zhou claimed that the woman clearly thought he was “fresh off the boat” in spite of the fact that he hasn’t been to China in two years, and therefore posed just as much of a risk as any white British person. As well as this, four separate racist incidents relating to the coronavirus have been reported to police in Yorkshire, where there have been two reported cases of the virus. Both the Chinese ambassador to the UK and the Health Secretary Matt Hannock have spoken out against such reactionary and hateful attitudes, Hannock saying, “this is not about one part of the world.”


Hostility towards Asian communities across the pond is just as, if not even more, harsh. Even usually reputable sources have been guilty of propagating an anti-Asian sentiment. In an Instagram post which was intended to inform students about common reactions to the threat of outbreak, the University of California Berkeley listed ‘xenophobia’ as one possible reaction. The post was quickly deleted and an apology was issued, but this did not subdue those who felt outrage at the university’s normalisation of the showing of animosity towards people based purely on their ethnic background. 


A doctor by the name of Eric Ding added fuel to the fire when he shared an unpublished paper about the coronavirus and its R0 which is supposed to measure the virus’s level of contagiousness. Although he deleted this particular tweet and the subsequent tweets pertaining to it, it managed to drum up a significant amount of hysteria surrounding the virus. A thread remains on his Twitter, however, and although he prefaced this series of tweets by saying, “First, I don’t like unsupported conspiracy theories, but [the origin of the coronavirus] is a lingering question…seafood market isn’t whole story”, the discussion in the following tweets belongs more in the camp of inflammation than information, at one point saying, “…I am absolutely not saying it’s bioengineering … I’m simply saying scientists need to do more research.” 


We have seen recently that xenophobia spurred on by the virus is not the only factor rendering the lives of Asian people in the States difficult; you will recall Trump’s restriction on Chinese immigrants and allegations of Chinese spies in the US. The circulation of xenophobic ideas masked as “information” about the virus only serves to reinforce already existing rhetoric villifying Chinese people. It’s important to note that this is not an isolated occurrence of this type of rhetoric; associations between Chinese people and uncleanliness have long been part of Western discourse, specifically in the US, and most often centred around Chinese food and eating habits. 


This is particularly relevant considering Wuhan’s food markets have been cited as the source of the virus. The food sold at these markets don’t always fit into Western norms, so there is often a tendency to view it as strange or disgusting. A perfect example of this is the ordeal experienced by Wang Mengyun, a Chinese vlogger who posted a video of herself enjoying fruit bat soup. This video was posted three years ago, but amidst coronavirus madness it resurfaced and was falsely claimed to have been shot in a “Wuhan restaurant”. In spite of the fact that the video was filmed in Palau long before the outbreak of the virus, the video caused fury and disgust online. It was described as “gruesome” and “revolting” by media outlets and Wang even received death threats. The backlash was so severe that she was forced to issue an apology for the video. Although China is thought to have issues around food regulation, this is a governmental concern and hardly the fault of individuals who choose to enjoy traditional menus – it does not justify the demonisation of Chinese people as a result of cultural ignorance. 


This attitude fits into a much larger discourse which associates foreigners with disease, a typical case of cultural “othering”. Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, discusses the connection between immigrants and illness: “People with a different national, ethnic or religious background have historically been accused of spreading germs regardless of what the science may say.” This can be seen in public discourse for as long as immigrants have been in the US. The New York Daily Tribunal was circulating similar ideas in 1854, writing that Chinese people were “uncivilised, unclean, filthy beyond all conception.” We like to think we have come a long way in accepting and embracing different cultures, but when xenophobia is perpetuated by popular media outlets and reputable sources, it is important to scratch beneath the surface – usually what seems like a simple tasteless comment is in fact contributing to a larger narrative that stigmatises people of certain cultural backgrounds. 


This was seen even more recently during the large-scale migration into New York in the 1920s, during which racial segregation in the city was justified by links that were falsely made between certain ethnic groups and germs. It was also evident during the HIV epidemic in the 80s, when Haitian people were discriminated against;and during the SARS outbreak of 2003, which saw the persecution of people of Asian ethnicity. 


In times of public emergency, it is far easier to assign blame than to think rationally. However, it is important not to let a scaremongering narrative surround an outbreak. Priscilla Wald warns against this in her book Culture, Carriers and the Outbreak Narrative. She explains that a sensationalist narrative can “influence how scientists and the lay public understand the nature and consequences of infection, how they imagine the threat.” 


During outbreaks, it is in everyone’s best interest to remain calm and compassionate. Not only does this facilitate the spread of helpful information, but ensures that we do not create another layer of xenophobic rhetoric which further marginalises certain groups in society during a period when, of all times, we must stand together. 




Photo by Bicanski on Pixnio



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