The global coronavirus outbreak has been responsible for at least 132 deaths to date, and while its exact origin story remains unclear, publications including the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal quickly suggested Wuhan's "wet markets"—meat markets that sell live and dead animals, a practice that isn't exclusive to China—as a likely source of the virus.
The suspected source of the virus, per the Journal, was "a cluster of vendors" at a Wuhan wet market, who sold "carcasses and live specimens of dozens of wild animals—from bamboo rats to ostriches, baby crocodiles and hedgehogs." No doubt because of the framing of these reports on wet markets, where people buy animals outside the pork-chicken-cow trifecta deemed "normal" by most Americans, many Westerners are blaming the Chinese—and specifically, their eating habits—for the coronavirus surge.
In doing so, they're relying on old racist tropes and fueling fears about the ways Asian people eat. As James Palmer wrote in Foreign Policy, the American media has long portrayed Chinese people as "dirty" carriers of disease, citing an 1854 New York Daily Tribune article that claimed Chinese people were "uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception." Those ideas haven't gone away.
At the center of this conversation is a video of a Chinese woman eating bat soup. Four years ago, while hosting an online travel show in Palau, internet celebrity Wang Mengyun ate the local delicacy of fruit bat soup. The original video was deleted, but after bats were identified as a possible carrier of coronavirus, Wang's video was reposted, inaccurately described as having been filmed at "a Wuhan restaurant," and turned into another coronavirus meme.
Wang was vilified for the video, and presumably because people linked her actions to the virus's spread, Wang has since received messages like "You should go to hell. You should be killed in the evening. You’re abnormal. You’re disgusting. Why haven’t you died?," according to News.com.au. Despite Wang's apology and clarification, some people still remain upset that she presented bats, a wild animal, as tasting good.
Similar rhetoric is extending across social media. On YouTube, Asian-fronted mukbang videos, in which people eat in front of the camera, are suddenly overrun with coronavirus-related comments: "This is probably why the Asians have coronavirus," "Maybe this girl [sic] already dead because of coronavirus," "After eating that kind of foods and wondering why they caught virus," and others more extreme in their racism.
In a viral thread, a Twitter user quote-tweeted a mukbang video of an Asian woman eating a geoduck, a large and admittedly phallic-looking clam. In the heightened environment of the coronavirus outbreak, a woman eating a geoduck—a mollusk native to the American northwest—is framed as a uniquely Asian affectation: "why we got that mf virus casually floating around," the caption reads. The responses are equally insensitive: "They really just be eating anything. It’s sad," "It's karma from the concentration camps they have," "That’s why that damn virus going around they eat shit we should not not be nowhere close at [sic]."
It's worth noting that at places like French chef Eric Ripert's award-winning Le Bernardin and Dominique Crenn's three-Michelin Atelier Crenn, geoduck is a white-tablecloth-worthy dish, not an object of scorn and blaming; it seems highly unlikely that anyone would point at Ripert and say something like, "why we got that mf virus casually floating around." After the CDC announces yet another lettuce-related E. coli outbreak, nobody goes to videos of white women eating salads to say, "Maybe this girl is already dead because of E. coli," because, of course, that would be alarmist, generalizing, and callous. Chef and travel host Andrew Zimmern ate bat for Bizarre Foods, but is anyone turning him into a source of blame?
Clearly, the Western conception of Chinese eating continues to be loaded. Despite the fact that at least 8,200 people have died of the flu in the United States this season alone, the concern about coronavirus has provoked a storm of anti-Chinese sentiment.
You don't have to scratch very hard at the surface of Western culture to find anti-Asian racism. "Ching chong" was trending on Twitter just the other day, and every Asian in America, regardless of their country of origin, has likely been the recipient of at least one "joke" about eating dogs. The controversy over dog meat was, of course, needlessly invoked in Business Insider's report on Wuhan's wet markets, despite having no reported ties to the current virus. It's a line of rhetoric commonly employed by people who aren't Asian, and it perfectly highlights Western attitudes toward how and what Asians eat: Whether it's dogs or crocodiles (the American South, mind you, eats alligators) or bats or chicken feet, what Asians eat is framed as barbaric.
"…The practice of eating dog has been wielded in the past to exoticize and demean us as heartless monsters who wouldn’t blink twice at barbecuing man’s best friend," now- San Francisco Chronicle critic Soleil Ho wrote for Taste in 2018, who added that when the Igorot people of the Philippines grilled dog at the 1904 World's Fair, it was used as justification of America's colonialist efforts to "civilize and educate" that population.
China does, indeed, have problems with its food safety standards, as Palmer wrote, but it's the conditions of where that food is procured that ultimately matter more than what's being eaten. But the United States isn't perfect in those areas either, and plenty of dishes that seem "normal" to people in the United States are deemed odd by other parts of the world, from our crazy-sugary snacks to our processed cheese.
What's deemed an "acceptable" meat—and the manner by which to obtain it—is nothing more than the result of different cultural values and norms. In the United States, where we're used to a limited protein range and a shopping model that puts plastic-wrapped, disembodied animal parts in cold cases at grocery stores, there's an undercurrent that what people in Asia eat is inherently "weird" and unsettling. When those eating practices are linked, however inconclusively, to health scares—as they are currently—those beliefs become loud rationalizations for dehumanizing Chinese people and treating their lives as less worthy.
And this racism obviously goes far beyond food. In recent weeks, a Japanese store owner tried to ban Chinese tourists from entering his store; an 8-year-old in a face mask in Washington was racially stereotyped by a Costco employee who feared he'd come from China; a group of parents in a Toronto suburb with a high Chinese population made a petition asking families who'd recently traveled to China to quarantine themselves. The subreddit r/CoronavirusMemes casually jokes about nuking the entire city of Wuhan.
As the rest of the world rightfully worries about this contagious new disease, it's worth remembering that protecting lives doesn't have to come at the cost of other peoples' humanity.