The WHO released a statement) following its global health emergency declaration Thursday urging countries around the world to “demonstrate solidarity and cooperation” when it comes to researching and halting the spread of the coronavirus. This portion of the statement could be read as a glancing acknowledgement of a very concrete problem: many people have taken the new coronavirus as a cue to overtly express latent racism towards Asian people, in the form of racist jokes, reinvigorated cultural stereotypes, and in-person vitriol.
Since news broke of the spread of the virus, which scientists believe first made the leap from snakes or bats to people in Wuhan, China, the number of reported cases has grown rapidly, already outpacing the number of people who contracted related virus SARS in 2003. The latest estimates show more than 17,000 people sickened worldwide, with the vast majority of sick people in China.
There’s the barrage of jokes about how dating Asian women is, temporarily, “unsafe” or expressing fear about Asian people coughing in public. Then there was the quickly deleted reassurance (from UC Berkeley’s university health services official Instagram account, where people of Asian descent compose 29 percent of the student body) that xenophobia is nothing more than a “common reaction” to news about the novel coronavirus. Of course, that “common reaction” doesn’t tend to extend to outbreaks that begin in European countries, like mad cow disease, or in North America, like swine flu.
It’s clear this attitude is not limited to internet discourse: There are reports of an Asian man collapsing in Sydney, Australia’s Chinatown last week and ultimately dying because onlookers were too afraid to perform CPR. Meanwhile, while fearful reactions to Asian people may appear to be a facetious meme, many are taking it literally, like these people physically covering their faces while seated across from an Asian woman with a suitcase on public transportation. Then there are the jokes from Asian people themselves about coughing in public to expose racists or experiencing flirty racism from their non-white partners.
The anti-Asian prejudice around the novel coronavirus is nakedly symptomatic of our currently political climate, which has given air to racist and xenophobic ideologies under the guise of “defeating them in the marketplace of ideas,” an approach that has backfired disastrously. Unfortunately, xenophobia and bigotry are familiar elements of the outbreak “narrative,” as Frank Shyong wrote Monday in the LA Times. “The manipulation of public health concerns to justify targeting of minorities has led to some of the biggest stains on American history,” he said, citing homophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the wake of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and racialized fears in the 1800s tying Chinese immigrants to cholera and smallpox outbreaks in California.
So, racism has been a part of the coronavirus story from the outset, as have racially charged conspiracy theories. But virus containment measures by the Chinese government, a flurry of new studies on coronaviruses, and the speedy development of a coronavirus vaccine seem to have done little to quell public concern. Unfortunately, that public concern has come to be expressed through the language of racist, anti-Chinese, and anti-Asian sentiment.
Racism as a culturally ingrained reaction to fear and uncertainty is emboldened by a political discourse that has made dehumanization of vulnerable populations normal. For all the pushback against political correctness and identity politics neutering self-expression, it's clear that people are not afraid to express racist sentiments as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
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