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The coronavirus exposes the history of racism and “cleanliness”

While the epidemic may be new, xenophobia has been intertwined with public health discourse for a very long time.

A man riding the subway in Brooklyn, New York, wears a medical face mask on February 2, 2020.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Nylah Burton is an award-winning travel, entertainment, and lifestyle writer with bylines in New York Magazine, Travel + Leisure, and Vogue.

The coronavirus outbreak has created global anxiety since the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China, late last year. So far, over 30,000 illnesses and 635 deaths have been reported in mainland China, with cases in the double digits found throughout Asia, parts of Europe, Australia, and beyond; in the US, 12 people have been found to have the pneumonia-like virus. In response, Chinese cities have been quarantined, borders have been sealed, and travel has been banned. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the coronavirus an international public health emergency.

While panic about a sudden, deadly virus is to be expected, some fears — especially in North America and the West — have been based on something other than health. The panic has exposed a deep-seated xenophobia, and with it, a symptom of its own has surfaced: hostility toward East Asian people.

Washington Post reporter John Pomfret writes, “At a middle school a few blocks from my house, a rumor circulated among the children that all Asian kids have the coronavirus and should be quarantined.” People in Los Angeles and Toronto have also experienced instances of xenophobic harassment, from racist comments made by TSA agents to verbal street harassment. In the UK, Chinese restaurants say they are struggling for business because of widespread misconceptions about the “cleanliness” of their food. Meanwhile, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has touted the crisis in China as an opportunity to increase jobs in America.

While some efforts to contain the virus seem fairly practical — like the suspension of flights to mainland China — others seem to be unfairly targeting Asian people. Australia is quarantining people who’ve recently been to China’s Hubei province, many of whom are of Asian descent, on an offshore island.

Adding to the panic are conspiracy theories. Under the pseudonym Tyler Durden, the founder of a right-wing financial blog called ZeroHedge posted an article, “Is This The Man Behind The Global Coronavirus Pandemic?” sharing the name and personal information of a Chinese doctor and researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, accusing him of collaborating with the Chinese government to develop engineered bioweapons.

The severity of this wave of xenophobia has even been minimized by respected educational institutions. In a now-deleted Instagram post, University of California Berkeley Health Services tried to comfort students and faculty who might be “experiencing” xenophobic thoughts and reactions, by saying bigotry and bias are “normal” and “common” during the coronavirus outbreak.

The fact that some believe racist stereotyping is “normal” shows that the coronavirus isn’t creating xenophobia out of nowhere. It is uncovering what has long been baked into Western culture.

“Misinformation, coupled with the fear that it provokes, can bring existing xenophobia to light,” said Edith Bracho-Sanchez, assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, who has worked on health issues involving international borders. “As human beings, we are afraid of the things we don’t know, but our response should be to educate ourselves, not to further spread and give oxygen to fears and misunderstandings.”

Xenophobia and the racist stereotypes of “dirtiness”

News of the coronavirus is amplifying a specific form of bigotry, called sinophobia — hostility against China, its people, people of Chinese descent, or Chinese culture. In America, this can even be found in our policy. For example, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned the immigration of Chinese laborers to the US for 10 years. The purpose of the act was to “placate worker demands and assuage prevalent concerns about maintaining white ‘racial purity.’” President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been restricting immigration for Chinese students and scholars since 2018.

But xenophobia has been intertwined with public health discourse for a very long time, against many different groups, Merlin Chowkwanyun, historian and assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told Vox. “Historically, in both popular and scientific discourse, contagious disease has often been linked, in a blanket way, to population groups thought to be ‘outsiders,’” he said.

Associations between germs and immigrants, for example, was a critical part of the early 20th-century xenophobia that led to immigration restriction in New York City in the 1920s, Chowkwanyun said. “City authorities justified racial segregation by drawing supposed links between germs and Mexican, Chinese, and African American people.” He points out that similar narratives were portrayed against Haitian immigrants in the early days of the HIV epidemic in America, as they were the only group singled out as “high risk” because of their nationality.

While othering often centers the white experience as “superior” and “pure,” fears of “dirtiness” also extend to conflicts outside of Western colonization. In the Dominican Republic, where there is a long and incredibly bloody history of hatred toward Haitians, Bracho-Sanchez says that “many spent more energy asking that Haitians be banned and borders be closed than they spent ensuring their vaccines were up to date” when there was a diphtheria outbreak from 2014-2017.

We see that dynamic here in the US, with the difference in how people react to the coronavirus compared to how they react to the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the US alone the flu has had a devastating impact — leading to at least 19 million illnesses, 180,000 hospitalizations, and 10,000 deaths this season. Cases of measles are also being reported more and more. But there seems to be greater urgency and panic to buy masks and emergency supplies to avoid the coronavirus than there is with getting a flu shot.

In trying to explain part of this dynamic, Chowkwanyun says, “In general, when there is a zeitgeist of racial backlash and xenophobia, it drips down into medical discourse. Given the tensions between the [US] and China now, it’s not surprising to see that happening with coronavirus.”

Refocusing attention on the victims of the virus

There’s also the question of whether focusing solely on the many bigoted Western reactions to the coronavirus is misguided. Mark, an Asian American writer and photographer born in the Philippines to a mother whose parents immigrated there from China, has been concerned about the level of attention given to Western racists. “At a time when thousands of Asian lives and livelihoods across the region are threatened by Chinese institutional failures, it’s racist to try to make it about what white people are doing in Western countries,” Mark, who asked to be anonymous, said.

Racism is taking place not only in the West and between non-White countries, he said, but within China itself. “People from Wuhan and its environs have been ostracized throughout the rest of China, let alone the region,” he said.

Bracho-Sanchez says that although the painful experiences many Asian Americans and Asian immigrants have faced must be discussed and confronted, when we do so at the expense of reporting on the crisis that’s happening on the ground we “run the risk of losing perspective on who the real victims [of the coronavirus] are.”

To help address xenophobia and direct people toward ways to help those directly impacted, Bracho-Sanchez says the media should “stick to the facts and try to include context when able.” Instead of creating more panic and chaos, people must begin supporting those directly impacted and those most at risk. “People in countries without the infrastructure to contain this virus and to give the sick adequate and timely medical care are truly the ones who should be most concerned,” she said. “And like with any viral infection, those with pre-existing medical conditions, the very young, and [those who contracted it] early are most likely to suffer complications.”

In Wuhan and other places in China, the situation is dire. As Chinese authorities scramble to build new hospitals, the lack of available beds means many people with the coronavirus are being denied treatment at hospitals. In an interview Tuesday with state broadcaster China Central Television, Jiang Rongmeng, a member of the Chinese National Health Commission’s team studying the virus, said that “the medical resources in Wuhan, especially the ICU team, are not enough to deal with this severe treatment.”

One thing that people can do to help is donate to organizations on the ground that are providing shelter, masks, and medical supplies. They can also appeal to their governments to provide the $675 million in support that the WHO is asking for “in support of nations with weak health care systems.” And when bystanders see xenophobic incidents occurring around them, Bracho-Sanchez says, they should “share their knowledge” to confront the rising spread of misinformation and bigotry.

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