The world in grips of an epidemic more dangerous than coronavirus

We must prevent the spread of the epidemic of racist fear-mongering occasioned by the coronavirus outbreak.

Coronavirus Reuters
Women wearing masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus walk at a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea, February 20, 2020 [Heo Ran/Reuters]

Ever since coronavirus (COVAD-19) was detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, public health officials inside and outside of China have been trying to prevent the outbreak from transforming into a full-fledged global pandemic. 

But as public health officials have been addressing the medical dimensions of this outbreak, another epidemic has been spreading much more quickly across the globe: racist fear-mongering. 

The latter may prove more dangerous than the former – and each may exacerbate the other.

In a piece for Al Jazeera, Edward Hon-Sing Wong detailed the long history of anti-Chinese racism in Canada that has once again been exposed by this outbreak. But the global epidemic of racism occasioned by this virus is not limited to Canada, or even North America, and neither is it confined to Sinophobia. 

The Sinophobia we are witnessing today, in relation to a disease outbreak which could have easily originated in any Western European or North American country, is deeply rooted in the fertile ground of a much more widespread xenophobia.

As health officials in China and around the world seek to prevent the spread of this virus, the rest of us must prevent the spread of the racist condition of “fear of the foreigner” which predates and shall outlive this outbreak.  

Globalised Racism

A quick glance at recent headlines immediately reveals the globalisation of this irrational and racist “fear”.

According to PBS, “restaurants in South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Vietnam have refused to accept Chinese customers. Indonesians marched near a hotel and called on Chinese guests there to leave. French and Australian newspapers face criticism for racist headlines. Chinese and other Asians in Europe, the United States, Asia and the Pacific complain of racism.” 

This is utterly foolish. Pandemics are public health hazards that can begin anywhere in the world. 

Historically, the so-called “Justinian Plague of 541” first appeared in Egypt and then spread through the Byzantine Empire, and then throughout the Mediterranean. Leprosy became a pandemic in Europe in the Middle Ages. When the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean in the 15th century, they brought with them such diseases as smallpox, measles and bubonic plague and passed them along to the natives. In 1655, the great plague of London is estimated to have killed 20 percent of the population. We had the Russian Flu and then the Spanish one. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, was first detected in the US in 1981, but is believed to have originated in Africa decades earlier. 

Viruses have no race, ethnicity, gender, or class. They can begin anywhere.

Wider circles of fear  

Earlier this month, Amnesty International issued a report on the “seven ways the coronavirus affects human rights” and listed racism as one of the most significant and dangerous side effects of the virus.

French, American and Australian newspapers have been accused of racism in their reporting of the crisis. Even the naming of the virus – referred to in some media as the “Wuhan coronavirus” – has been exposed for its racism in an article by Marie Myung-Ok Lee for Salon. 

“It starts with the question of where the virus originates: is it currently spreading in the US, or another Western country? If so, give it its numerical designation (eg H1N1), or reference the animal in which we think it started (eg Swine Flu, or Mad Cow Disease). But if it started in a country that Americans have stereotypes towards, naming it after that region – as with Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Asian Flu, and now, Wuhan Coronavirus – is a great way to play on xenophobic and racist tropes,” she writes.

“Trump’s overheated rhetoric on migrants and people of color – and ‘s**thole countries,’ as he calls much of the world – are absolutely fanning the flames of the racist response to the Coronavirus. Yet it is important to recognize that this bias against Asians is nothing new; that the engine of white supremacist culture and language continually hums underground until something like 2019-nCoV makes it visible,” Lee continues.

It is nothing new. In fact, the phrase “Yellow Peril” is an old racist slur targeting Asians in Europe and the US. It has been used to demonise Chinese immigrant communities since the 19th century. 

But coronavirus has now become the medical term for the rampant globalised xenophobia that was plaguing the earth long before the start of this most recent outbreak.

As health professionals attend to coronavirus, we must tackle and defeat the racist xenophobia that has offered it fertile ground to breed fear of the foreigner. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.