The rise of Coronavirus racism

By Laurence Coulton

In recent years we’ve grown accustomed to a familiar phenomenon. A human tragedy is followed by a groundswell of global support and sympathy online.
Yet the spread of COVID-19 has seen the opposite, with a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment and racist incidents in several countries.
Social and news media abound with reports of East Asian individuals experiencing racism in the weeks since the virus hit the headlines.
Some 80,000 people have been infected in China alone with more than 2,800 deaths. In scale this is one of the worst human catastrophes of recent times and yet the response has been a world away from the collective outpourings of grief familiar for other recent tragic events.
Following the recent bushfires in Australia, social media was awash with fundraisers and posts mourning the destruction of the country’s precious wildlife.
Last April, when the iconic Notre Dame cathedral was badly damaged by fire, a deluge of online grief culminated in the donation of $835 million in just 10 days after the event.
Yet in the first few weeks of the coronavirus outbreak the Internet seemed fixated on blaming victims for the tragedy.
Fake reports began appearing on social news websites speculating about the origin of the virus. There were implicit, sometimes explicit, suggestions that death and disease were an inevitable and in some way deserved consequence of Chinese culinary practices.
These allegations were justified with fake reports, most notably a video of Chinese vlogger Wang Mengyun eating a bat.
These articles failed to mention the video was filmed in 2016 in the island nation of Palau in Micronesia.
These early reactions on social media created an environment of hostility toward ethnic Chinese.
Actually, the roots of this Sinophobia extend beyond the current epidemic.
In the 19th and early 20th century, anti-Chinese propaganda often cast China as heathen and unsanitary. In 1878, the editor of an American medical journal.
The literature of the time often depicted Chinese communities as an existential threat to Western
civilization. The exact shape of this threat was usually left vague, a dangerous imperceptible invasive force.
There are important parallels here with how we conceptualize the spread of disease.
Although decades-old, these tropes continue to inform and underlie perceptions of Chinese in the West and provide the foundations for dangerous stereotypes and allegations about a people and place most Westerners know little about.
These racial dogmas are given further credibility by the response of powerful actors in the media and government, providing an environment for racial intolerance to thrive. Heavy-handed travel bans lend political weight to the prejudices of ordinary people.
So do decisions by institutions such as schools in Italy and Wales to temporarily exclude pupils of Chinese heritage.
The complexion of contemporary news media means that most Western public only hear about bad news in China.
Everyday Chinese voices and good news stories are seldom heard.
This may be changing, but the consequence is that ordinary Chinese people are conflated with the actions of the state in ways citizens of other countries are not.
These optics, while themselves not acts of racism, systematically dehumanize Chinese people in the eyes of the Western public, allowing dangerous generalizations about China and Chinese people to go unchallenged in ways unimaginable for other nationalities and ethnicities.
The coronavirus outbreak has already become a global crisis. As governments and organizations scramble to contain it, the actions of everyday people will largely dictate what happens next.
Compassion and cooperation will make the difficult times ahead easier to bear. Racism and intolerance will not.
–The Daily Mail-Beijing Review News exchange item