What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Racism: Xenophobia Spreads

Part 1: Not all deadly diseases are treated the same.

Posted Feb 03, 2020

 Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash
A man walks on the street in Macau, China, wearing a protective mask to prevent infection by the coronavirus.
Source: Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

To date, about 17,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported, with more than 360 lives claimed by the respiratory illness so far. Reports suggest the contagious virus, whose symptoms include shortness of breath, fever, and cough, originated at the Hunan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, during December. These “wet markets,” as they are called, typically sell live fish, meat, and wild animals—and as NPR reporter Jason Beaubien observes, “There's lots of water, blood, fish scales, and chicken guts. Things are wet.” 

In the Hunan market stalls, vendors also sold snakes, which some experts believe acted as the intermediary host in spreading the disease from bats to humans. 

The situation is acutely terrifying and dire—reminiscent of the deadly 2003 SARS and 2014 Ebola outbreaks, which caused worldwide mass hysteria and resulted in thousands of deaths, with no U.S. casualties. As of now, the coronavirus is following a similar trajectory. The vast majority of those infected or dead are based in China.

In response, the Chinese government has halted much intra-city travel, putting cities that inhabit millions on lockdown. Meanwhile, a number of countries, including the U.S., Italy, and Australia, have issued travel bans against the country or stopped direct flights into China altogether. 

As governments take bold and cautionary measures to curb the spread of the disease across physical borders—how they are dealing with psychological borders is another story. 

A French newspaper, whose headlines include “Alerte Jaune” (Yellow Alert) and “Le Péril Jaune?” (Yellow peril?), which also features an image of a Chinese woman donning a protective mask, sparked criticism and outrage for its overtly racist stereotypes. 

Despite the paper issuing a swift apology for using some of the “worst Asian stereotypes,” the damage had been done. A BBC article shares stories from French Asians (not just Chinese) who have been unfairly targeted:

  • “[O]ne woman, Cathy Tran, described hearing two men on her way to work… saying, “Watch out, a Chinese girl is coming our way.” 
  • 17-year-old Parisian Shana Cheng (who is of Vietnamese and Cambodian descent) recalls being recently humiliated on the bus when a passenger said, “There’s a Chinese woman. She is going to contaminate us; she needs to go home.” No one on the bus defended her, but she coughed and sniffled “so to play on their fears.”

In a piece for The Guardian, Sam Phan wrote about his own racist encounters in London, including how a man on his morning bus commute “scrambled to gather his stuff and stood up to avoid sitting next to me.” He observed another person telling their group of friends, “I wouldn’t go to Chinatown if I were you; they have that disease.”

In Italy, the Financial Times reported Chinese tourists “being verbally abused and spat at in Venice, and of a 13-year-old boy being forced out of a football match by insults.” Far-right leader Matteo Salvini also openly condemned open borders when the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Italy.

According to CNN, there are reports of Chinese children being bullied in Canada—both in and out of school. Even Asian countries, too, are exposing their own biases. Some shops in Japan and Vietnam have posted signs (apologetically) turning away Chinese customers. In South Korea, where there are four confirmed cases of the virus, more than half a million people have signed a petition calling to ban Chinese visitors. 

The Spread of Xenophobia

Is any of this shocking? It shouldn’t be. Xenophobia has always been intimately tied to mass panic and hysteria, particularly when it comes to diseases. CNN reports at the height of the SARS epidemic, another respiratory disease which originated in China:

“[P]eople of Asian descent were treated like pariahs in the West. There were reports of white people covering their faces in the presence of Asian co-workers, and real estate agents who were told not to serve Asian clients. 

Asian people suffered threats of eviction, had job offers rescinded with no explanation… Chinese and Asian businesses suffered heavy losses...”

The Ebola outbreak in 2014 adopted a similar narrative, relegating the disease as “West African, or African” even though, like SARS and the coronavirus—the disease infects all humans indiscriminately. Immigrants in Dallas, Texas, faced “immense discrimination” after a man in their community was discovered to be the first person to be stricken with Ebola in the U.S. Some had been let go from their jobs while others were refused service in restaurants.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross writes in The Verge:

“The color of their skin and their accents makes them a target, even though they never came into contact with Duncan, and therefore pose zero risk. It doesn’t matter: they’re dark-skinned and foreign. They’re in Dallas. They might be infectious.”

For what it’s worth, Ebola is not very easy to transmit between humans—it typically requires direct contact through blood or bodily fluids from an infected person. 

Different Perceptions of Deadly Diseases

But what happens if we compare Ebola and SARS to another deadly disease? Cancer. 

Of course, cancer is different. It is not a contagious disease and cannot be transmitted to others unless you receive an organ or tissue transplant which contains cancerous cells. But it is also perceived differently. That it isn’t contagious certainly plays a role, but is there something else?

For the most part, cancer is accepted as a universal disease—one that affects all indiscriminately. This chart shows cancer cases by ethnicity from 1998 to 1992. While African Americans and whites are the most afflicted with cancer, this chart illustrates that other races aren’t far behind. 

Cancer statistics by race and gender
Source: CA Cancer J Clin 1998:48:31-48

This suggests that when everybody is a victim, there is no “convenient other” to blame. 

Obviously, comparing cancer to the coronavirus is a false equivalency. However, it seems that some people forget that being sick with either illness (or any illness, for that matter) is terrible. And those who are afflicted with either are unwitting victims who never wanted to get sick or put their lives (or others' lives) in danger. So why is it that one sickness is entitled to awareness campaigns and fundraisers, whereas the other is the target of harassment and vitriol?

[Continued in Part 2]