COVID-19: When Crisis Unearths and Amplifies Deep-Rooted Stereotypes
When the highly infectious and deadly Ebola hit across a handful of West African countries, news of how the whole African continent was battling the disease spread quickly. Ebola would claim more than 11,000 lives in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia and the cost, in economic terms, of the outbreak in those countries alone was more $1.6 billion in losses. But the outbreak, aided by preexisting prejudices and deeply rooted stereotypes, would have incalculable impacts on the continent, its people, and far beyond. During the devastating Ebola crisis, to be “African” is to be a primary suspect, amplifying the never-ending stigmatization, discrimination, and blatant racism against the continent and its people.
What is going on today with regard to China is, therefore, a familiar story. The coronavirus COVID-19 is galvanizing prejudices and stereotypes against the Asian giant and its people. In fact, COVID-19 is even resurrecting archaic stereotypes while making light of this deadly outbreak. But there is a significant difference between these two cases. Ebola was seen as signifying Africa’s inherent helplessness while COVID-19 combines preexisting biases with the fear of a rising China.
The U.S.’s reaction, indeed overreaction, to the outbreak is a case in point. It points to the prevalent fear of a rising China that is believed to have a secret agenda to take over the world. “Xenophobia, ideology and the Western fear for China’s rise are the triple burdens that hinder the fight against the 2019 coronavirus,” David Monyae of Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg concluded in a recent piece. Indeed, a recent article, “Welcome to the Belt and Road Pandemic,” published by Foreign Policy reinforces this argument. According to the piece, “By making the Belt and Road Initiative endeavour - a multitrillion-dollar programme to expand Chinese trade and infrastructure around the world - the epicentre of his foreign and economic policy, Xi has made it possible for a local disease to become a global menace… [if only] China is now impossible to quarantine.” Such views can only help intensify the mass hysteria and anti-Chinese sentiments that have accompanied the spread of the virus. Little wonder the WHO had to promptly warn against “trolls and conspiracy theories” surrounding the viral outbreak.
But in addition to geopolitics, racism, whether acknowledged or not, is also at play as Beijing battles the deadly COVID-19. Just days ago, the US cruise ship company Royal Caribbean made it clear that would-be passengers and crew with Chinese passports would be banned from all of its cruise ships, irrespective of their travel history—that’s, regardless of when they were last in China. The message here is clear: to be a holder of a Chinese passport is to be inherently a carrier of the virus. That is the definition of racism, and it is never helpful. Moreover, in reporting on the outbreak, many media outlets with global outreach have deliberately chosen to go for “China virus” or “Wuhan virus” to make their stories. Yet, according to the WHO it is “very important that we provide a… name so no location was associated with the name… to ensure that there was no stigma associated with this virus.”
As Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister observes, “These are ugly times and the racism implicit (and sometimes explicit) in many responses to Chinese people around the world makes me question just how far we have really come as a human family.”Just like during the Ebola outbreak, these stereotyping and prejudicing will continue unabated, unfortunately. But one thing is beyond doubt: Viruses or, for that matter, any kind of disease do not see color. They do not recognize the oft-celebrated borders of nation-states or ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns. The best way, indeed, the only way to effectively defeat them is by working together, collaboratively.