Not too long ago I came across a story from my local ABC News station, WFAA, on my Facebook news-feed. The story was about the continuing spread of the new coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China.
At the time of my writing this blog post, more than 9,000 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in China, and 98 cases of the virus have been confirmed in 18 other countries. Coverage of the virus has been all but dominating the media for the past couple of weeks.
Against my better judgement, I went to the article’s comments.
Although I couldn’t track down the exact article I read that originally inspired this post, here are a sample of similar comments I found on other WFAA, NBC DFW and local news articles about the virus (I did not copy all of the comments in their entirety, but I didn’t edit the parts I posted here either):
- “This is what happens when these Asian people eat every nasty thing walking around, from dogs, cats, rats, then sell it out on the open market with flies and all kinds of nasty bugs flying around.”
- “No more Chinese buffets for me unless their meat passes for rabies vaccine”
- “Aight no more Chinese buffet or massages with happy ending”
- “Lesson to be learned – DON’T EAT BATS!”
- “We need common sense foreigner control and universal background checks”
- “Build that wall”
- “Stay out of nail salons”
- “China exchange student? Keep that stuff outta here.”
And of course, we know that there are bound to be trolls in the comments. What is commented on Facebook doesn’t necessarily represent a significant number of real-life opinions and experiences. But then again…
So, What’s Going on Here?
There’s a long history of a relationship between xenophobia or other discrimination and fear of illness. For example, during the time of the Black Death, European Christians often blamed Jewish people and other “outsiders” for the spread of the disease. In the 1980s, when AIDS was found to be spreading in the U.S., many focused their fear and hatred on the gay community rather than the disease itself. In 2014, the Ebola virus epidemic was used by some politicians and commentators to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment.
Research has shown that fear of illness makes people irrational.In the case of an epidemic, rumors and stereotypes are known to lead to scapegoating, which leads to further racism and discrimination. Differences in culture and ways of living are viewed as threats to one’s own existence. Fear of disease can be easily exploited to spread xenophobia for political or other gain.
In the case of the coronavirus, a history of stereotyping and fear-mongering surrounding Asians in the U.S. may be partly to blame. This article from the Washington post outlines how false narratives about Chinese eating and hygiene habits were used to justify anti-Asian political movements such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Changing the Narrative
Although fear is a natural response to threats such as an outbreak of disease, it is important to re-focus our thoughts on rational health solutions and away from mass stereotyping and racist ideas.
The coronavirus does not have ties to any person’s looks, ethnic background, or race. Just because a person belongs to a certain racial group doesn’t mean that they are more likely to have the disease or give the disease to you. As ironic as it may sound, viruses don’t see color.
As with fighting a disease, the greatest weapon in fighting xenophobia may be knowledge and education. Seek out science-backed, factual sources of information rather than rumors and speculation. If you hear people you know speaking about the epidemic with racist sentiments, say something.
Empathy is also important in this case. Remember that the people living closest to where the outbreak started are the ones suffering the most. Imagine how you would feel having hateful assumptions directed at you in an already anxiety-packed situation.
In the end, racist and xenophobic narratives may be more harmful to our society in the U.S. than the coronavirus will ever be. Let’s do our best to keep racism from going viral.
Further Reading on the Wuhan Coronavirus and Racism:
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