Has the Coronavirus hysteria provoked or uncovered racist sentiments against East Asians?

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The novel coronavirus, having been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has instilled vigilance, fear and even panic in people all around the globe. The virus has first been detected in Wuhan, Hubei in China, in a seafood market that also sold live animals like snakes and bats. It has escalated into an ongoing epidemic in China as the country has recorded 723 deaths so far since late December. The virus has gradually raised anxiety as multiple cases of the virus and a handful of deaths have been confirmed in foreign countries like the US, France, Japan, the Philippines, etc.. Thus far, three coronavirus cases have been confirmed here in the UK.

Symptoms of the novel coronavirus include cough, fever and shortness of breath, which are similar to any other upper respiratory infection and have an incubation period of up to 14 days. The NHS has reassured the public that the risk of contracting the virus in the UK remains low and that we could easily protect our health by washing our hands often and using tissues to catch our coughs and sneezes as the virus is spread by close human-to-human contact. However, the prospects of having been infected unknowingly by anyone, the level of anxiety remains high.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus originates from China, the Chinese and anyone who remotely resemble East Asians face stigmatisation and prejudice. East Asians describe accounts of discrimination in which they are banned from entering restaurants and stores and ostracised and avoided in public merely based on the presumption that they are “Chinese” and could have possibly contracted the coronavirus, despite the fact that China has enforced a lockdown of 60 million people in infected regions and that teams of medical professionals have stationed in Heathrow to provide support to passengers flying in from China. This type of behaviour stems from misunderstandings, blind panic, ignorance and casual racism. The phenomenon of certain groups of individuals being generalised and reduced to pathological entities is not new at all. Due to the prevalent panic spread on social media, alongside with misleading messages, photos and staggering numbers of casualties, people are misinformed about the coronavirus’ means of transferring from one infected person to another and the risk of contracting it in their local areas.

However, the Chinese/East Asian discrimination cannot be attributed to only ignorance of the masses regarding the epidemic. The outbreak merely sheds light on people’s bigotry and racist views. Certain individuals are seen making insensitive jokes that perpetuate the racist stereotype of Chinese people’s non-Western eating customs and food culture, like consuming bats, dogs and cats. Others fire back by clarifying that these so-called “unconventional” eating customs are only practised in specific regions in China and are widely frowned upon by most Chinese people. Some also point out that the 80000 deaths caused by flu in the US last winter have raised no global concern yet everyone overreacts to the coronavirus which has a few hundred deaths, attributing this behaviour to casual racism. The people who avoid any person who remotely possesses East-Asian facial features and/or wears a surgical mask for protection or make unsympathetic, racialised jokes are weaponising this virus outbreak. They see this epidemic as an opportunity for them to disguise their bigotry and xenophobia with concern about public health. They are exploiting the hundreds of deaths and thousands of infected patients for their perpetuation of racist, biased beliefs.

These people think that it is okay to ride the public fear of the coronavirus to propagate their xenophobic propaganda. To counter this, as members of our global village, we should pay attention to reputable health organisations like the WHO for accurate sources of information, remain vigilant and alert and most importantly, open-minded and sensible at times like this.

Clarissa Leung