Stereotypes about Asian people and gross meat consumption are so well-known that it almost feels redundant to point out the fact that they exist—and yet, the coverage around the new coronavirus outbreak proves that somebody must.
Since the first case of it was reported in December, facts have continued to emerge about the novel coronavirus. So far, we know for sure that the epicenter is in Wuhan, China; that its symptoms are flu-like; that it is related to SARS and MERS; and that it can be passed from person to person even when symptoms haven’t manifested yet.
The rapid influx of new information makes the whole story an extraordinarily fertile breeding ground for fear-driven rumors and conspiracy theories about where it came from and how it’s being spread. It’s no coincidence that many of those rumors center around the dietary habits of Chinese people.
Last week, researchers reported that the virus was likely zoonotic, meaning it was initially contracted from human-animal contact, and that its makeup was most similar to viruses found in bats. This led to a flurry of racist tweets (I won’t link, but search “China bats coronavirus” on Twitter if you’re in the mood to get pissed), including the recirculation of a video in which a Chinese woman consumed bat soup… in 2016, in Palau, a small island nation in Oceania. Nevertheless, breathless coverage of Chinese food culture from paragons of journalism like The Daily Mail, the Mirror, and even the New York Times ensued.
“This is where you get new and emerging diseases that the human population has never seen before,” Kevin J. Olival, a biologist, told the Times in an article published Saturday. The article focuses on China’s wildlife consumption, citing a variety of animals for sale most Civilized People would surely balk at: civet cats, badgers, and snakes, oh my! Intriguingly, the Times did not cover mad cow disease with the same prescriptive fervor in the early 2000s, when it chalked up that outbreak to gaps in food regulation, rather than fundamental cultural ickiness.
U.S. enforcement of food safety regulations has been in steady decline since Trump took office, so the pearl-clutching from major media outlets when it comes to the prevalence of the “omnivorous market” in China feels rich. Plants and animals? How can that be? Haven’t Asian people heard of the vastly superior American food culture, where we Frankenstein together a deep-fried sushiritto pizza cake that would surely never make anyone sick?
There are more than 4,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide (though experts estimate that number could be much, much higher) and 106 people have died after contracting it, which makes all of the concern around figuring out how to halt its spread completely justified. Countries around the world have taken steps to contain the outbreak, including shuttering borders and implementing precautionary airport screening for travelers coming from Wuhan.
While it’s obviously not racist to want to understand the origin of a dangerous, highly contagious disease, speculation from non-scientists with a bone to pick about “exotic” cuisine isn’t doing anything for anyone. All the fanatical finger-pointing does is stoke fear and place blame where it doesn’t belong.
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