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The new coronavirus is not an excuse to be racist

This is the latest disease outbreak to become racialized

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An Italian citizen (C) repatriated from the coronavirus hot-zone of Wuhan is directed to a health control zone after landing at the Mario De Bernardi military airport in Pratica di Mare, south of Rome, on February 3, 2020
Photo by ANSA/AFP via Getty Images

Three weeks ago, Trang Dong, a 21-year-old Vietnamese American, posted a video to TikTok, the short video sharing platform. In the clip, Dong and her cousin are slurping up the leftover broth from pho. The joke is, they’re both holding their spoons with their chopsticks. 

In the last few days, Dong’s video has attracted several racist comments. “Where is the bat in your soups???” one TikTok user wrote. “Its corona time,” another posted, referring to the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, and has since infected more than 19,000 people, mostly in mainland China. 

“They’re making a joke out of a pretty serious thing,” Dong says. 

“As soon as the news got out that it landed in America, that’s when it started ramping up with the racist comments.”

As officials work to contain the disease, which the World Health Organization (WHO) recently labeled a global public health emergency, anti-Asian racism and xenophobia have continued unabated. On 9gag, the meme- and GIF-sharing site, one user posted an image of a man with his tongue out, ogling a woman. He’s a coronavirus, and she’s “Chinese eating bat soup.” In a viral tweet, an account posted a video of a woman eating bat with the comment, “When you eat bats and bamboo rats and s--- and call it a ‘Chinese delicacy,’ why y’all be acting surprised when diseases like #coronavirus appear?” And some restaurants are suffering as people share false warnings that Chinese dishes could somehow harbor the virus. 

Kyra Nguyen, a 20-year-old Vietnamese American from Los Angeles, has watched the ethnic slur “chink” ping-pong around Twitter, alongside suggestions to shoot US-bound planes from China out of the sky. “As soon as the news got out that it landed in America, that’s when it started ramping up with the racist comments,” she says. “Prior to that, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s in China,’ so people weren’t as worried about it, I guess.” 

Many Twitter and Facebook posts blame Chinese people (or people presumed to be Chinese, like Dong and Nguyen) for creating and spreading the virus. If others challenge their statements, many users, including one who commented on Dong’s video, defend their statements as “jokes.” But Dong, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, says these words and images damage both her sense of identity and her sense of well-being: “[People saying] ‘stay away from your Asian friends’ or ‘stay away from international students’ is really upsetting to see.” She says these posts are a reminder that, as an Asian American, she’s a “perpetual foreigner in the country I was born in, in the country I was raised in.”

“We know that people will look at our black hair and ‘yellow’ skin and target us.”

Chinese people in Asia and Asian people around the world say they’ve been treated with suspicion since the virus made international headlines. Erin Wen Ai Chew, a 37-year-old entrepreneur with Chinese ancestry, told me about a recent experience in an Australian airport. Chew says a white woman eyed every Asian person passing by, especially those wearing face masks, as though searching for signs of disease. Chew purposefully coughed near the woman, who, she says, ran away, eyes wide with terror. 

“We’re expecting this type of thing to happen,” Chew says. “We know that people will look at our black hair and ‘yellow’ skin and target us… There’s a lot of anger, a lot of resentment, and also a lot of dread to know that when we go out, we could be subject to racism.”

There are political repercussions, too. Despite little scientific evidence that restricting travel stops the spread of a novel virus, President Trump has banned foreign nationals who have traveled to China in the last 14 days from reentering the United States. This runs counter to WHO’s guidance, which discourages travel and trade bans, as they can make it harder to help nations respond to such outbreaks. 

SARS created a template for racist fear-mongering in subsequent outbreaks

The current atmosphere echoes a previous outbreak. In 2002, a different coronavirus emerged in China’s Guangdong Province: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). It killed almost 800 people around the world. Public health officials are still not certain how the virus emerged, says Katherine Mason, a medical anthropologist at Brown University. But experts theorize that the zoonotic illness moved from bats to another animal, like civet cats, which are a delicacy in southern China, and then into humans. This genetic baton-pass may have begun in a wet market, which are places where vendors keep many different kinds of live animals and sell them alive or slaughter them on-site. The close proximity of so many species that might not otherwise meet may facilitate the spread of new diseases. 

SARS created a template for racist fear-mongering in subsequent outbreaks. Many of the offending coronavirus posts in recent weeks have confidently connected the virus to Chinese people’s purported appetite for bat, which has been labeled disgusting, dangerous, and something people don’t eat “in the normal world.” (Most of the world finds the American appetite for disassembled, plastic-wrapped animal parts equally strange.) The same posts assert that the virus originated in a wet market, which people describe with similar disdain, despite scientific speculation that the coronavirus may have emerged elsewhere.

Only some outbreaks are racialized, says Roger Keil, a professor in the environmental studies department at York University, who studied the impact of SARS on the city of Toronto. Neither H1N1, which emerged in North America, nor mad cow disease, which primarily affected the United Kingdom, generated a racial or ethnic backlash of this magnitude. Yet, diseases that originate in China, like SARS and the new coronavirus, or in Africa — remember the fears about Ebola? — consistently correlate with xenophobia. 

“With this new virus, something was triggered that is always latently there.”

“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,” Keil says. It also echoes old prejudices. In the 19th century, Europeans feared a so-called “yellow peril,” brought about by “primitive” people with emerging global power. In the US, there was a specific notion that Asian people carried disease, the Los Angeles Times reported.  

To combat racism, people in the public eye, including politicians and media outlets, have to begin by uncoupling the disease from its origin point, Keil says. 

Nguyen, the Los Angeleno, thinks coronavirus could be a catalyst for social change. “Growing up, I’ve experienced a lot of microaggressions. Like, ‘Oh are you eating dog?’” she says. “A lot of people don’t view microaggressions as racism. They think it’s a joke.” Now, people are speaking up, online and off. 

For now, Keil says, “there are two things to remember every morning when you get up: wash your hands and don’t be racist.”