Fears around the coronavirus are enabling racism

Anxiety and lack of information surrounding covid-19 are no excuse for discriminatory behaviour

“Are people running away from you?” a second-year American student was asked by a Trinity staff member after the student coughed in front of them. When the student, who is of Asian descent, pointed out that it was flu season, the staff member continued by saying “they told us to quarantine students who are sick”. After the student responded by saying that they hadn’t been to China in over six years, the staff member laughed, stating: “That’s just your cover up.” 

To some, these comments may seem like a harmless joke, but for the student, who is American but has familial ties to China, they were a source of extreme discomfort and upset. “My family has friends in Wuhan who have passed away as a result of the virus,” they informed me. “Nobody here cares about the Chinese victims.”

“The lack of specific knowledge on the coronavirus has led to the development of a culture of fear, that in turn has enabled the development of irrational and often-racist beliefs.”

These comments are symptomatic of a recent widespread outbreak of coronavirus-related racist behaviour towards Chinese nationals across the globe. This behaviour has developed in tandem with a wave of misinformation surrounding the coronavirus or COVID-19, that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has described as an “infodemic”. False information and rumours about COVID-19 have been transmitted around the world so quickly that their development is comparable to that of a virus itself. The lack of specific knowledge on the coronavirus has led to the development of a culture of fear that in turn has enabled the development of irrational and often-racist beliefs.

While the coronavirus epidemic currently has more confirmed cases than that of the ebola and SARS outbreaks in previous years, it has not yet reached the same severity as that of the H1N1 or “swine flu” epidemic of 2009. As of 27th February 2020, there are over 76,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and there have been 2,400 deaths. Because the outbreak originated in the Wuhan area of China, the virus has become inextricably linked with China and its residents in the minds of the general public. This belief, unfortunately, has resulted in various instances of Sinophobic behaviour internationally. 

In Japan, the hashtag #ChineseDontComeToJapan has been trending on Twitter, while in Korea, a “No Chinese Allowed” sign was placed in a restaurant window. Despite minimal confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, a 16-year-old Asian student was hospitalised following a coronavirus-related racist assault in California. In the UK, the Guardian reported that a postgraduate student in Sheffield was verbally and physically harassed in the street for wearing a face mask. The widespread international nature of these incidents is an indicator of just how far-reaching these ethnophobic beliefs about the coronavirus are. 

“…some Asian food business owners had reported a “decline of 50-60%” in business following the coronavirus outbreak.”

The association between the coronavirus and China has also had a devastating economical impact. Much of the Chinese economy has come to a standstill, as it suffers from a depleted workforce as well as a decline in business from abroad. Many members of the public, paranoid and ill-informed about the virus, are avoiding Chinese businesses, which has led to a sharp decline in sales. Even in Ireland, where there are just two confirmed cases of coronavirus, some Asian food businesses have reportedly been affected by a notable drop in revenue. Eva Pau, commercial director of the Asian Market food-supply company, said that some Asian food business owners had reported a “decline of 50-60%” in business following the outbreak. 

It should go without saying that this kind of discriminatory behaviour is completely unfounded. There is no evidence to suggest that consuming Asian food produced in Ireland would infect somebody with coronavirus. More importantly, the generalised association that some are making between China and everything “Asian” is indefensibly ignorant and racist. These issues seem to be rooted in the unwarranted belief that the coronavirus is associated with everything China-related. This is not the case: while the coronavirus originated in China, it is not a “Chinese” virus. The ethnicity of an individual, or the food style of a business, does not make them any more or less likely to contract or transmit the virus. 

It is too easy for the Western media and general public, lacking clear and specific information on how the virus is spread, to make assumptions that quickly develop into subtly racist behaviours. Arguing that everything China-related, or even Asia-related, should be avoided on the grounds of “caution” is grossly ignorant and xenophobic. This may sound like stating the obvious, but the worrying surge in this kind of behaviour, both in Ireland and internationally, proves otherwise. 

In one Asian restaurant in Dublin, a handful of employees who had been visiting their homes in Taiwan and Korea in January found that upon their return to Dublin they had been removed  from the roster for two weeks, in what was described as a “precautionary measure”. The decision was reversed after an appeal but it serves to illustrate the extent to which misguided anxieties about the virus are resulting in harmful discriminatory behaviour. Fear and uncertainty are no justification for racist behaviour, and yet this is just one of dozens of such incidents.

“…the coronavirus outbreak needs to be considered in humanistic terms for the tragedy that it is.”

With cases increasing rapidly each day across the world, it is clear that the coronavirus crisis will not be resolved anytime soon, and so Ireland and other Western countries need to prepare for every possible outcome. Part of this preparation must involve the public becoming well-informed on the specificities of the virus and how it works, in order to dispel ill-founded and damaging beliefs about the link between the virus and China. At its core, the coronavirus outbreak needs to be considered in humanistic terms for the tragedy that it is. The Western-centric viewpoint that sees the coronavirus purely in terms of “fear” and “prevention” negates the experience of the thousands of people across the globe who have lost friends and family to the virus. 

It is possible to prevent against the coronavirus while simultaneously demonstrating compassion and understanding for those from China and elsewhere who have been affected by it, and the Western world and its media should strive to do so. At a basic level, the focus should be on paying attention to reputable sources of information rather than rumours, supporting suffering local businesses, and not discriminating against specific communities of people.“We must be guided by solidarity, not stigma,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO said in a recent speech on the dangers of the coronavirus. “The greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other.”

Hugh Whelan

Hugh Whelan is the current Comment Editor of Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister English Literature and Film Studies student.