The outbreak of the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China in late 2019, has created a worldwide health and safety panic, resulting in many courageous efforts from doctors and health officials across the globe to combat the unfamiliar disease. However, reports from all sides of social media and internet forums have revealed a much more sinister reaction to the devastating illness: racism and xenophobia.
This is not the first time that these kinds of outbreaks have become racialized and used to propagate xenophobia. “With this new virus, something was triggered that is always latently there, under the surface, which is this fear of the other and the idea that bad things come from elsewhere,” says Roger Keil, a professor in the environmental studies department at York University. We saw this kind of racism during the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak of 2009, when Mexican and Latino immigrants were wrongfully blamed for the spread of the virus. More recently, the 2014 Ebola outbreak created a massive wave of racism-fueled hysteria.
In 2002, Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a virus that originated from China’s Guangdong Province, killed approximately 800 people. The outbreak of the virus resulted in a culture of fear and hatred towards different aspects of the Chinese culture, namely diet and food practices.
The kind of anti-Asian racism being thrown around then strongly echoes the attacks Asian people are now facing both in real life and on social media. As reported by The Verge, a few weeks ago Trang Dong posted a video on the popular video-sharing platform TikTok, showing her eating pho while using chopsticks to hold the spoon. What was supposed to be a humorous video ended up attracting a string of derogatory messages, including “Where is the bat in your soups???” and “Its corona time.”
Asian people across the country have taken to platforms like Twitter to document the kinds of racism they’re facing in real life because of the virus outbreak. People recount being ranted to on public transportation, being avoided in airports, and being addressed about the illness in public spaces. In France, the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus, which translates to “I am not a virus,” has spread rapidly to counter racism.
University of California, Berkeley, has even come under fire for making an offensive post on the school’s official health and wellness account. The post, aimed at describing “normal reactions” to the coronavirus outbreak, included “Xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings,” harmfully painting xenophobia as an excusable offense.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among other health organizations, have all urged people to not make these harmful, racist assumptions or “jokes.” WHO also strongly disagrees with The United States’ move to deny entry to foreign nationals who had been in China, arguing that it will only create more fear and stigmatization.
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Writer, journalist, and dog-enthusiast. Student in Pratt Institute’s BFA Writing Program.