Be Vigilant to Reawakened Racism in the Face of a Viral Outbreak

 In China, ASEAN, Local, Information, N11, P5, Healthcare and Public Health

Apparently sparked by igno­rance over the COVID-19 coro­n­avirus out­break, a woman wear­ing a face mask was allegedly assaulted and called “dis­eased” this month at the Grand Street subway sta­tion in New York City’s Chinatown. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a man sit­ting next to a Chinese-British writer on the London under­ground jumped up and rushed away, saying “I’m not sitting next to the coronavirus.”

Earlier, at one of Rome’s pop­u­lar tourist sites, a café posted a sign saying “all people coming from China are not allowed access in this place”. A notice on the window of a nail salon in Vietnam read “Sorry we don’t accept Chinese cus­tomers for coro­n­avirus.” And a restau­rant in Hong Kong declared on their Facebook page that going for­ward they would take orders only in Cantonese or English, and not Mandarin – a not-so-subtle way of saying main­lan­der cus­tomers were not wel­come.

More and more people of Chinese origin, and in a good number of cases, even people of other east Asian descent, have expe­ri­enced this kind of xeno­pho­bic hys­te­ria across the world since the out­break of the novel coro­n­avirus epi­dem­ic.

The alarm­ing inten­si­fi­ca­tion of Sinophobia, to a cer­tain extent, is a reac­tion to the rise of an author­i­tar­i­an super­pow­er, which is also the world’s second largest econ­o­my.

While quite a few main­stream media out­lets in the West have called out the panic based on igno­rance and racism, such sen­ti­ment still echoes. A region­al French news­pa­per ran a front-page head­line warn­ing of “yellow alert”, allud­ing to the cen­tu­ry-old racist phrase “yellow peril”. An op-ed titled “China is the real sick man of Asia” appeared in the Wall Street Journal. (Chinese author­i­ties sub­se­quent­ly expelled three reporters from the Journal, an over­re­ac­tion not least because the news­room and opin­ion sec­tion are oper­at­ed sep­a­rate­ly). 

This kind of deroga­to­ry lan­guage, which his­tor­i­cal­ly has sym­bol­ised big­otry toward Chinese, is all too famil­iar. Bruce Lee, for exam­ple, in a 1972 movie with set­tings in the 1910s Shanghai, famous­ly kicked a sign “Sick Man of East Asia” which insult­ed Chinese people as dis­ease-strick­en “weak­lings”.

Sadly even today, the click bait of sen­sa­tion­al photos and videos show­ing “weird” food cul­ture, pre­sum­ably in China, with­out seri­ous ver­i­fi­ca­tion, still flood social media when a health crisis such as this one takes place. Among them, a video show­ing a Chinese woman taking a bite of a cooked bat became almost the symbol of the root cause of the cur­rent out­break, as the spread of the virus was believed to have begun at a Wuhan seafood market where wildlife trade was also hap­pen­ing. The true story behind the video, how­ev­er, is that it has nothing to do with Wuhan, and it was not even set in China. The woman, host of an inter­net travel show, was posing for the camera trying a local del­i­ca­cy in the Pacific island nation Palau back in 2016, an act not that dif­fer­ent from what Anthony Bourdain did on his CNN show Parts Unknown. Nor does plac­ing blame on culi­nary cul­ture alone – even allow­ing that most Chinese don’t tuck into “unusu­al” dishes – does not explain other public health emer­gen­cies.

With 28 coun­tries so far reporting con­firmed cases of the virus, cau­tion over the mys­te­ri­ous deadly ill­ness is expect­ed and nat­ur­al. Yet it is impor­tant to empha­sise that Chinese people are the vic­tims, not the cul­prits, of this epi­dem­ic.

The alarm­ing inten­si­fi­ca­tion of Sinophobia, to a cer­tain extent, is a reac­tion to the rise of an author­i­tar­i­an super­pow­er, which is also the world’s second largest econ­o­my. In recent years, an increas­ing­ly assertive China has unset­tled its neigh­bour­ing nations, prompt­ing deep sus­pi­cion and mis­trust in the region, and among its main rivals in the West. Such sen­ti­ments, unfor­tu­nate­ly, have spilled over to inno­cent people of Chinese origin or descent, and the cur­rent virus out­break appears to have com­pound­ed the prob­lem.

Meanwhile inside China, as they suffer from this crisis and the eco­nom­ic loss it has caused, cit­i­zens are making every effort to get through the hard­ship, with China’s social media buzzing with sto­ries includ­ing dona­tions of crit­i­cal­ly needed med­ical sup­plies, efforts to take strand­ed people shop­ping, and the shar­ing of vital infor­ma­tion to help one anoth­er out. Construction teams have worked around the clock to build new mas­sive hos­pi­tals in a matter of days, and doc­tors have stayed on shifts to the point of exhaus­tion.

And more impres­sive­ly, over the last two months, doc­tors and sci­en­tists have pushed back against the stern ruling Chinese Communist Party struc­tures in a back­lash; reporters and grass­roots neti­zens have taken risks push­ing the enve­lope of cen­sor­ship – even in the face of attempts to con­trol infor­ma­tion. The gen­er­al public has found a renewed urgency in trying to hold the author­i­ties account­able, seek­ing trans­paren­cy and prod­ding the offi­cials into action.

Viruses don’t dis­crim­i­nate, they affect every­one, regard­less of one’s colour, nation­al­i­ty, or lan­guage. From SARS to MERS, from H1N1 to Ebola, like any patients impact­ed by dis­eases in any cor­ners of the world, Chinese people deserve empa­thy, respect, and help from the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty. By trad­ing panic and hatred for com­pas­sion, it will be easier to achieve a shared goal of defeat­ing the pathogen. “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you” is a quote often attrib­uted to Confucius – but it is a sen­ti­ment that is heard around the world.

Source: Lowy Institute

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