The last few weeks have occasionally felt like the world’s capitulation to a doomsday scenario. Conversations about the Wuhan coronavirus end up sounding like the beginning dialogue of zombie apocalypse movies. It is not surprising that people are reacting this way: It strikes fear into many of those with memories of the much deadlier SARS outbreak in 2003 lurching out of China and into the rest of the world.
There is, however, another virulent strain that has emerged in this period. What the Wuhan coronavirus reveals is our thinly-veiled xenophobia. These sentiments are at the underbelly of every crisis: a fear of the “other.” It goes without saying that the fear of Wuhan coronavirus spreading is well-founded, so it is difficult to draw the line between legitimate concern that demands action and using this fear as an excuse for blatant displays of racism. Where that line lands depends on whether we are pointing fingers at the victims or the oppressors.
Firstly, how do we know what actions are warranted? Is Singapore’s ban on travel entry of all mainland Chinese visitors — after a petition that garnered 122,000 signatures; the most in Singapore’s history — xenophobic? Restricting travel entry is perhaps the best way to contain the virus, so while this may draw on existing anti- mainland Chinese sentiments, it leans towards rational policy. But other examples point towards more obvious xenophobia. In Japan, the hashtag #ChineseDon’tCometoJapan has started trending on Twitter and in places like Hong Kong and France, there have been restrictions on where Chinese people can go and what they can do. Circulating jokes that Wuhan people “deserve what they’re getting” and proposing bleach as a “miracle solution” exemplify the bigotry in the online response.
A friend of mine studying in the UK was approached by a group of teenagers asking if she and her friend had coronavirus before making barking sounds — it matters not to them that my friend is not mainland Chinese — because what amounts to racial profiling depends on how you look. Wang Mengyu, the Chinese social media influencer whose travel video of her eating bat soup recently went viral, has received death threats in spite of the fact that the video was filmed three years ago and in Micronesia. At Arizona State University and the University of Durham, people refuse to sit besides Chinese students in lectures or turn and stare if they do so much as cough. Citizens in Canada, Australia and Italy who are ethnically Chinese have made statements about feeling alienated in their own countries, at a time when they may need the most support. In the words of Hu Lanbo, a Chinese Italian journalist, “Believing that one can catch the new coronavirus at the mere sight of a Chinese person really makes no sense.”
Dr. Paul Genecin, the director of Yale Health and a clinical associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, told me that while there have been many concerns raised about public health and safety, faculty and administrators have “strived to react rationally and without xenophobia.” He expressed, however, some of the issues with the spread of misinformation. Here at Yale, a Yale Model United Nations visiting student was tested and quarantined after showing symptoms congruent with coronavirus. Although they eventually tested negative, Dr. Genecin mentioned that there were assumptions firstly that the student came from Wuhan and secondly that reports of a negative result were circulating before the test had been performed. Another concern is the “mistaken notion that wearing face masks in public confers protection because this phenomenon may actually raise the risk of spread of infection.” Dr. Genecin explained that the hoarding of surgical face masks by people at low risk for infection could result in a shortage. While these instances do not seem to be as severe as the spread of misinformation globally — in particular about how the virus originated — they bring up important questions about how we handle healthcare risks and crises and what more we can do to mitigate panic.
We have to consider the real issue that this crisis has revealed in China, which is not about what a small number of people in Wuhan eat at markets. The problem is that in a tightly-controlled authoritarian system, and especially a country that is often pitted against the world, there is little incentive for state authorities to report figures back to the central government. There is a suppression of information in a country that depends on government-sanctioned truths. After all, it has been revealed that as early as December, patients known to have coronavirus were placed into wards with uninfected patients. They were sent home and their families told nothing, and doctors were told not to record them as infected. In our accusations of who is at fault, we must look to the larger figures and to who is in control.
Spreading misinformation that the virus originated from Chinese people’s eating habits or lack of hygiene is perilous to finding medical solutions and prevention. But it also has social implications: We find ways of justifying our prejudices. This strain of xenophobia is not new; it resurfaces whenever a crisis emerges, in order to legitimize our fears. If we continue to excuse it, whether in racial profiling, building walls or with violence, we may be left with a danger far more pervasive and difficult to eradicate.
What is important for us to remember during this period is that we must react with empathy. Simply asking ourselves whether our fears are founded is often good enough in delineating the appropriate action to take. As zombie film-esque as this outbreak sometimes feels, what reminds me most of those apocalypse tales is our immediate instinct to close all doors and to treat any “other” as an enemy.
MIRANDA JEYARETNAM is a first year in Pierson College. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .