The beginning of 2020 has seen the rampant rise of the Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), a pathogen originating in Wuhan, China and spreading rapidly worldwide. Not much concrete information is available about the pathogen — with research ongoing — but the virus has been known to cause COVID-19, a contagious and potentially fatal respiratory disease. All of this has resulted in widespread fear and panic, but also an uptick in racist and xenophobic attacks on people of East Asian ethnicity.
Comedian Ken Cheng put it this way, “less than 0.001% of Chinese people have Coronavirus yet more than 99.999% have already experienced Coronaracism”. While this may be comedic hyperbole, it does give us a picture of reality.
From more subtle acts like maintaining an unreasonable distance from East Asian people or overreacting to a cough or a sniffle, to overt rants on subways attributing all diseases to China, xenophobia has reared its ugly head again. Two hotels in Indiana harassed two guests of Hmong descent, asking intrusive questions about nationality or just outright denying them a room. The disease also crippled businesses in Chinatown, long before any Coronavirus cases were diagnosed in the state of New York — let alone the city.
While such developments are abhorrent, they are merely a relapse of age old reactions to any adversity that has a foreign origin. Immigrant Irish workers were deemed responsible for Cholera outbreaks in the 1830s and Americans of African origin were treated like scapegoats in the 1900s, as Syphilis was considered a “black” disease. The 2003 SARS outbreak saw widespread racist rhetoric against Asians similar to the present day, and the 2014 Ebola outbreak saw attacks aimed at immigrants hailing from Ebola ravaged countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Such a long list of historic racial misdemeanors seems to suggest something — that fear and panic play a role in the spread of racist and xenophobic rhetoric during phases of pandemic. In fact, a study conducted on this subject seems to support the idea that people have a stronger feeling in favor of their in-group and stronger opposition to out-groups, basically suggesting that people have a tendency to feel safe around people belonging to their own ethnicity or race and oppose people from other races and ethnicities, when exposed to disease.
Such feelings are only exacerbated when diseases have a clearly foreign origin. While this might be a psychological byproduct of fear and panic, it is categorically wrong. For starters, it is important to note that disease does not discriminate — once the pathogen reaches a body, it wreaks havoc regardless of race or ethnicity.
If anything, such disease outbreaks are likely to affect people of foreign origin more, because those with families back home at the epicenter would be in far greater danger than the privileged racists who point fingers and spew hatred. Keeping the 2014 Ebola outbreak in mind, Americans were the first to get access to ZMapp, an experimental anti-Ebola drug, despite Africans having died for months since the outbreak began.
While Americans could access experimental drugs, disease stricken African nations couldn’t even access fuel to power ambulances. The drug might not have been as effective as hoped, but the fact that a potential cure was received by Americans first highlights the position of privilege they hold compared to most people from stricken countries.
Cycling back to the spread of Coronavirus, the fears surrounding it are valid but it is important to stay clear of misinformation. It is natural to feel paranoid but this is not the right time for tribalism. Instead, unity is required to solve a global issue and xenophobia is most definitely not the answer. Pandemics transcend racial and ethnic barriers and we need bridges, not walls.
This does not mean reckless action — for I do support control of travel and increased screening of travelers to protect their safety and ours — but rather making sure that the puzzle pieces that make up the nation are tightly packed in unity, because the strength found this way can help overcome adversity.
This cycle of divisiveness must stop here. To fellow members of the campus community, I urge greater sensitivity to the matter at hand. Support friends and acquaintances whose families back home might be affected by the spread of Coronavirus. Stand up to overtly racist remarks, implicitly racist actions and even jokes. Humor is a great means of escapism but there are limits to what constitutes humor and what is blatantly racist. Make use of campus resources like bias and hate reporting services and other affiliated partners. People facing racist and xenophobic remarks should be assured of the fact that there is absolutely no justification for dehumanization or prejudice.
Additionally, folx should remain cognizant of the threats of the Coronavirus, regularly checking the CDC website for updates and instructions to remain safe. Such an exercise would prove to be far more beneficial than xenophobic and racist acts.
2020 marks the start of a new decade, one where we can no longer afford to live with divides in the face of global crises. If we cannot adequately handle the first crisis that comes our way this decade, we might as well consign ourselves to our doom.
Anupras is a Freshman studying Computer Science. Do you think Coronavirus has resulted in the rise of xenophobia? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org