Coronaracism might be spreading faster than COVID-19 itself
“You’re Chinese, why did you bring corona to America?” “Take your fucking coronavirus back home!” “Because of your shitty bat soup, you’re infecting everyone” These are only examples of verbal violence directed towards people of Asian origin worldwide, most of them not even Chinese, among worse forms of anti-chinese racism like physical abuse.
As I am penning this article, over 500,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed worldwide, while the death toll is over 20 000. With our eyes glued to rumors of the newest cure or conspiracy theory, the latest numbers, or even the most viral coronavirus memes, the epidemic has become an essential part of our lives today. As most of us are confined at home, I want to tackle a sadly inevitable consequence of this virus: the coronavirus-related spread of racism, or, as many call it now, coronaracism.
Governments’ drastic confinement measures, the media’s constant coverage, have an inevitable consequence: people are giving in to panic. With this kind of massive, universal sentiment of helplessness, crowd movements become more unpredictable and somehow dangerous. Supermarkets are taken by storm, hydroalcoholic gels and toilet paper pile up in cupboards, people become wary of one another.
Important components of this crowd-driven hysteria are xenophobia and racism, which for the past month and a half, countless people of Asian descent, like myself, have encountered. We have been accused, among others, of creating and intentionally spreading the virus, having gross eating habits, or simply asked to leave the country. British-Chinese comedian Ken Chen efficiently summed it up as he tweeted: “Less than 0.001% of Chinese people have coronavirus yet more than 99.999% have already experienced coronaracism” in January. Today, the numbers have changed, Chinese infections representing a little above 0.06% of China’s population, but the message remains, and it is alarming to see how easily societies that prone equality and mutual respect can tip in the face of a major issue. This is no new feature: in times of crisis, fear further fuels discrimination, and stigmatisation of groups can become a form of coping: for example, in the 1916 polio outbreak, Italian immigrants were accused of bringing the disease to America.
I believe that this coronaracism reveals a dormant sinophobia. In our increasingly globalized world, many feel marginalized. They sometimes respond to their feeling that they’re missing out, that they’re helpless in the myriad of flows taking place at every second, with racism. Their fear converts into hatred, and if they don’t apply this hatred to governing institutions, they direct it towards those they perceive as “strangers”. The coronavirus and the panic it induces seems to catalyze this transformation, and the equation builds up to a liberation of sinophobia that has been more or less bottled up, probably since the increasing integration of China in international trade and exchange and the mass influx of Chinese tourists across the planet since the Deng Xiaoping era, giving the impression of a “Chinese invasion”. Seemingly anodyne everyday jokes have become the proof of this internalized racism; such as the daily “ni hao”s or “we can’t see your eyes”. Most of us don’t take these personally, but we must reflect on how this reveals an internalized form of racism, which remains racism nonetheless.
However, many across the world have tackled this issue. For instance, in France, Le Monde has published an article headlined “With the coronavirus, anti-Asian racism spreads in France” tackling the issue, and it is among those that inspired me to write this article. Many articles have successfully shed light on this fear induced xenophobia that reveals a latent sinophobia. On social media, where most racist comments thrive, hashtags have been created to raise awareness on this growing xenophobia. In late January, #iamnotavirus trended in French, English, German, Italian and Spanish. It even inspired a Chinese band to release a song titled “我不是病毒” (I’m not a virus).
I find these measures extremely encouraging, but as long as most people are panicking, fear remains and so does racism. The media keeps exacerbating the impact of the virus, governments are closing down borders, and this only encourages fear of others. I am not criticizing the governments’ actions, as I believe that self-isolating is of great help, but it is essential, in my opinion, to announce measures in the most organized possible manner, to keep people informed with verified and unbiased facts in order to mellow the hysteria. Only then, when panic is subdued, will we have a real shot at fighting racism.
Let’s not throw away this shot: we have to stay united in the face of the pandemic, because it is only through unity that we can give each other the support needed to cope with and get through this crisis, that also remains above anything else an epidemic of panic, ignorance and fear.