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Illustration by Aude Nasr

Racism spreads faster than most epidemics

The racist reaction to coronavirus is symptomatic of the misguided beliefs that people have around race and illness.

07 Feb 2020

Illustration by Aude Nasr

“Errr… Not sitting next to coronavirus,” muttered a fellow passenger on the tube last week. He was originally sat next to me but after his comment, he immediately moved to another seat on the other side of the carriage. I didn’t want to kick up a fuss so I sat there in silence, stunned at what had happened. Nobody else heard his remark, but it made me feel small and powerless. Although coronavirus has claimed the lives of more than 300 people in China and the Philippines, with 14,000 cases around the world including Australia, France, Japan and the US, as a British citizen who hasn’t stepped foot in China in over 10 years, it’s safe to say I’m at a low-risk, like everyone else in Britain.

However, what we do need to acknowledge is that since the coronavirus outbreak, there’s been a huge spike in hostility and racism towards the Chinese community in the UK and beyond. The sad fact is I know I’m not alone in receiving this kind of discrimination. Epidemics are racialised. In the past, SARS, Ebola, bird flu and HIV have led to hostility towards East Asians and Africans, and the reaction to this deadly contagious virus is an example of history repeating itself. Comparing the experiences of different minorities during different breakouts reveals a similar pattern.

Hagan Sibiri, a Ghanian PhD student studying at Fudan University in Shanghai recalls coming to Beijing during the height of the Ebola crisis. “It was one of the awkward moments to be African in China, which has a history of stereotypes against people of black descent,” he says. “I met a Chinese guy in a supermarket who was really eager to talk to me. He asked if I was American, to which I replied I was from Ghana. The first thing that came out of his mouth was ‘oh, Ebola’ and walked away.”

While we’ve made great medical strides to tackle these illnesses, we’re yet to take aim at the misguided beliefs that people have around race and illness. Diseases have been spread by all races all over the globe – and in the era of colonialism, white Europeans wiped out entire indigenous populations, such as the Tainos, bringing influenza, smallpox and other viruses to their shores. The insidious idea that people of colour are more prone to certain deadly diseases like coronavirus should act as a wakeup call to those who misguidedly believe that the era of racialised hysteria around illness is over. The reaction to these stories is tied up in white supremacy and pre-existing prejudices among different national identities.

In the UK specifically, the racist reaction to coronavirus has been worrying. British sinophobia has been around for a long time, from the 1919 anti-Chinese riots in London to Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Chinese people still deal with a lot of racism day-to-day and it’s often ignored or not reported on. Take Piers Morgan’s recent debacle, mocking the Chinese language on Good Morning Britain for example. No one seems to take East Asian racism seriously. 

“I made an ill-advised annual shopping trip to Chinatown on Lunar New Year’s Eve and I saw a man really obviously leaning away from some East Asians with a newspaper held in front of his face,” says Sophie Yates Lu, a charity worker for British training organisation Campaign Bootcamp. “As soon as they got off the tube he relaxed and put the paper down. Being half white and half Chinese-Taiwanese, I guess he didn’t think I was a threat.”

“I made an ill-advised annual shopping trip to Chinatown and I saw a man leaning away from some East Asians with a newspaper held in front of his face”

Sophie Yates Lu

Just outside of London, Michelle Chai, a British-born Chinese freelance copy editor from Hertfordshire has been subject to ignorant comments from her solicitor whilst signing the documents she needed to move house. “You don’t have coronavirus, do you?” he asked her. “Your family are… where are they from? All good and well, healthy?” Michelle was unimpressed. “I felt a little taken aback as I’ve never even been to China, never mind amidst a house move,” she says. 

Racism hasn’t just stopped at Chinese people. Many people in the UK can’t tell Asian people of different descents apart, resulting in East, South and South East Asian communities being targeted with racial microaggressions and offensive comments, regardless of whether or not they are Chinese. One Nepali woman, who didn’t want to be named tells me that a white colleague of hers repeatedly joked about how “China should be nuked and the virus will die with them”. She says that he had “been consistently making racist remarks and then proceed to laugh it off”.

This casual racism is spurring irrationality both online and offline and even among other Asians globally. In recent weeks, a Japanese shop banned Chinese people from entering, viral coronavirus death and face mask jokes have been flying left, right and centre, and have reportedly caused a 50% drop in the restaurants’ business in London’s Chinatown over the Lunar New Year period, when footfall should’ve been at its highest.

These days, thanks to social media, racism is a fast-travelling export. Users are constantly slapping “other” labels on race groups, pitting one against the other and spreading misinformation. These ignorant, baseless comments, offensive jokes and hurtful Reddit memes about the fear of Asian people coughing in public or the start of World War III lack any thought of context or empathy and are created for cheap laughs.

As panic spreads, so do stereotypes. A “bat soup” video was widely circulated as bats were thought to be the possible carrier of coronavirus, playing into age-old racist tropes around Asians eating weird, disgusting things deemed unpalatable by Westerners. It’s important to keep in mind that only a small minority of Chinese people actually eat wild animals but conspiracy theories online are continuing to build around this idea, whipping up fear-mongering around fortune cookies and 5G. Meanwhile, pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theorists have encouraged people to drink a bleach solution as a cure for coronavirus.

The reporting from some of the biggest Western newspapers has also fuelled global panic. French regional newspaper Le Courrier Picard chose the headline “Yellow Alert” to accompany a front-page photograph of a Chinese woman wearing a mask while the Herald Sun opted for “Chinese Virus Pandamonium” crudely highlighting the word “panda” on a face mask. In response, a petition with over 60,000 signatures has been set up and called for the Australian newspaper to apologise. News sources need to check their Orientalism and Sinophobia, they need to be more considerate and mindful when it comes to reporting epidemics.

“He asked if I was American, to which I replied I was from Ghana. The first thing that came out of his mouth was ‘oh, Ebola’ and walked away”

Hagan Sibiri

“There’s been a lot of support and other governments have offered their support to China. Netizens across the world are praying for China, at least on social media,” says Hagan Sibiri. “However, Western media and social media, in general, are not helping by fueling hysteria and promoting fake news. Their orders for evacuation and warnings, they’re acting as if an apocalypse is happening in China.”

It’s important to avoid propaganda that has created a hostile environment where it’s every man, woman and children for themselves and many people are buying into it – all because Chinese people’s way of living is different. After all, this is a public health policy that affects us all.

We should ask ourselves why some people think it’s acceptable to be selective on the enjoyable parts of Chinese food and culture that they consume, but when the country is in crisis and in need of a helping hand from an epidemic, Western media turns a blind eye and makes dehumanising remarks. Instead of an outpouring of support and donations, many big Lunar New Year events have been cancelled as an act of “solidarity”, but it’s a poor excuse to prevent Chinese people from congregating and lumping all Asians together as disease-ridden carriers of pathogens.

Everybody is so focused on how coronavirus might infect us that they forget that an entire nation is on lockdown, people are separated from families and people are dying. It’s as if every ounce of empathy or compassion has gone out the window. We should recognise and see coronavirus for what it is – a tragedy. As officials seek to contain the virus and to (hopefully) find a cure, sadly, people will forget this ever happened and simply move on to the next big thing. However, racism can’t be swept under the rug and the damage isn’t so easily undone.

“I think as far as some people believe the UK has come with regards to racism, anti-racism and diversity,” Chai adds. “The coronavirus-incited racism has shown how much of a disparity there is between Western countries and Eastern cultures.” 

Coronavirus is certainly no excuse for any kind of xenophobia and racism. We should be sending masks and love, not hate.