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Coronavirus response: an example of germaphobia or xenophobia?

As the Coronavirus continues to spread day by day, with the recent outbreak in Italy rising up to almost 300 cases, it has inarguably spread a lot of fear in all communities. We see scenes ranging from morbidly long lines to buy face masks, panicked crowds scrambling to look for hand sanitisers and daily necessities ranging from toilet paper to rice, to people avoiding areas like Chinatown or Asian businesses, and some turning away when they see Asians cough or sneeze in public. Surely, then, to merely focus on fear of the disease is to overshadow the fact that the virus has quickly spread fear of the Chinese or Asians, and has been used as a vehicle to drive racism towards the Chinese and Asian community.

As news of the Wuhan virus spread online, one video that became emblematic of its claimed origin was of a Chinese woman, supposedly in Wuhan, holding a cooked bat on camera and biting into it. Since then, thousands of Twitter users have blamed supposedly “dirty” Chinese eating habits for the virus. It is certainly ironic as the video was not even set in Wuhan, where bat is not a delicacy.  Rather, it is a video featuring Wang Mengyun, a blogger and travel show host, eating a dish in Palau, a Pacific Island nation. The fact that the video trended viral and many yield this to be true shows the power of fake news, which is particularly effective when produced based on stereotypes that have been entrenched in the Western narrative and mindset. Indeed, it is not a new conception that foreigners (the Chinese in this case) have ‘disgusting’ or ‘horrifying’ eating habits, and so must be naturally dirty and deserving of such diseases.

Since then, thousands of Twitter users have blamed supposedly “dirty” Chinese eating habits for the virus

It takes little explanation to see why these stereotypes are highly problematic. It is certainly incomprehensible, if not infuriating, how the conception of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to eat is culturally arbitrary and basically determined from a Western point of view. While Asian cuisine is normally viewed as ‘exotic’ and ‘bizarre’, Western cuisine is often normalised, if not viewed as gourmet. Foreigners are often repulsed by the thought of the Chinese eating animal organs and innards like chicken testicles, or animals like snake and dog, yet French eating habits like snails and frogs are seldom scrutinised in the same way. This is often due to perceptions of French cuisine as a form of fine dining, with a certificate or degree from Le Cordon Bleu viewed as the highest form of prestige in the culinary world. More importantly, it is not even what is being eaten that matters as much as the conditions, including the standards workers are trained to meet, hygiene controls in markets, and regulations upheld by health inspectors. While the ‘uncivilised’, ‘disgusting’ eating habits of the Chinese had been blamed for the outbreak of the virus, it is important to note that diseases can start from anywhere and originate from any species. Swine flu virus such as H1N1 started from pigs, while avian influenza started from birds.

Foreigners are often repulsed by the thought of the Chinese eating animal organs and innards like chicken testicles, or animals like snake and dog, yet French eating habits like snails and frogs are seldom scrutinised in the same way

These stereotypes and Western conceptions can often dangerously escalate into racism towards the Chinese, and even East Asians in general, especially at this time when they are labelled as ‘carriers’ of the disease. In California’s San Fernando Valley, for instance, a group of high schoolers physically assaulted a 16-year-old boy and accused him of carrying coronavirus. The only diagnostic criteria was that he is Asian, with no consideration that the coronavirus outbreak arose specifically in Wuhan, China and not all people of Chinese or East Asian descent are infected with coronavirus. In addition, this makes the assumption that the Asian community is a homogenous group, when in fact they have remarkably diverse appearances and backgrounds; and it certainly alludes to deeper issues that immigrants deal with on a day-to-day basis – even if groups like Asian Americans have been brought up there and recognise themselves as locals, they would arguably never be seen in the same way and integrate fully into the community.

Yet, it is just as important to know that coronavirus does not distinguish between nationality, race or religion

Racism is not merely witnessed at a societal level, but also dangerously perpetuates through the media. The Le Courier Picard, a local French newspaper, used words such as “Alerte jaune”, which translates to “Yellow alert”, and “Le peril jaune”, which translates to “Yellow peril”. Such terminology of racial colouring is self-explanatorily racist that sets white as the ‘normality’ – the civilised, enlightened and superior race. East Asians only came to be referred to as yellow-skinned as the result of a series of racial mappings of the world. In particular, Asians started being labelled as the ‘other’ when they remained unwilling to participate in European systems of trade, religion and international relations from the 17th century.  Before that, Western travellers and missionaries described East Asians “as white as we are”. This also alludes to the aforementioned problem about East Asians being grouped together as a single racial category as the ‘yellows’ rather than having diverse origins.

It is evident that coronavirus has spread pandemic fear to all communities at various levels, and I am certainly not saying that all of this fear is unjustified. At the end of the day, COVID-19 has proven to be a lot more contagious than its counterparts with research showing that patients may show no signs of symptoms, or that ‘cured’ patients may still be contagious. Yet, it is just as important to know that coronavirus does not distinguish between nationality, race or religion. At a time where everyone is vulnerable to a fatal disease, to view the Chinese (or East Asians) as carriers and deserving of the coronavirus is incredibly insensitive and dehumanising, if not inherently racist.

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