On January 8, scientists in China announced the discovery of a new coronavirus (Covid-19). To date, there have been 75 748 confirmed cases and 2 129 deaths from the disease. Of these deaths, 2 121 have been in mainland China. As the disease spreads from country to country, governments, medical personnel and scientists are working around the clock to contain the spread.
In times of great crisis, healthcare professionals, corporations and governments should rally round. Although such collaboration is taking place, the emergence of Covid-19 has also led to growing anti-Chinese sentiments in the West. The coronavirus is being racialised and the Western media’s coverage of the virus has created mass hysteria, which is now fuelling Sinophobia.
In the United Kingdom, school children of Chinese heritage are being bullied. Some Chinese children studying in Britain are experiencing their first name being replaced with the word “coronavirus”, their middle name with “contagious” and their surname with “spreader”. Some of these children have been ridiculed into becoming spokespeople for the virus, as they are grilled by their classmates about the disease.
In Leicester, two Chinese students were pelted with eggs, and some University of Leicester students have reported suffering verbal racism linked to the coronavirus. In Australia, Chinese people have been subjected to funny looks and racist comments. “Sneezing and coughing while Chinese” has become the ultimate sin.
In Canada, the Chinese community has become a target of racism comparable to the racism meted out to them during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak. Shopping traffic at the Pacific Mall in Toronto has reduced significantly, and more 10 000 parents at a school in Ontario signed a petition for the school board to ask students whose families have travelled to China to stay at home and self-quarantine.
In the United States, Chinese-Americans who, as a result of the ongoing trade dispute between the Chinese and US governments have faced the humiliation of being suspected as intellectual property robbers and spies, are now treated as virus carriers. In New York, a Chinese woman who was wearing a face mask was punched and kicked by a man who called her diseased. Australia, US and New Zealand have imposed a ban on entry to anyone who is neither a citizen nor a permanent resident if they have travelled in China within the past 14 days.
Racialising the coronavirus
The Western media has played a key role in racialising the coronavirus. Chinese nationality and race is used by some sections of the media to describe the virus. The BBC used the subheads and headlines: “Symptoms of China coronavirus” and “China coronavirus: Lockdown measures rise across Hubei province” to report on the virus, and National Geographic magazine used the headline: “How the Chinese virus outbreak impacts Lunar New Year travel”. It is alleged that Robert Peston, political editor of ITV News in the UK, remarked, “How can we protect ourselves from the Chinese virus?” The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “China is the real sick man of Asia” using an image of a Chinese woman wearing a protective mask in Beijing.
The West’s racialisation of the coronavirus is a manifestation of Western narrative about the inferiority of the darker races, who are dismissed as disease agents. Diseases that emanate from the West are never racialised, but when a disease originates or is prevalent in the rest of world, the noun of the disease is modified by the adjective of the region. Hence, we hear About African swine fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome, China coronavirus and Japanese encephalitis, but never British mad cow disease.
The humiliation faced by people of Chinese heritage in the wake of the coronavirus bears similarity with the ridicule faced by Africans during the Ebola crisis of 2014 when the disease was used in the West as a basis to stigmatise people of African origin. In the UK, a child of Sierra Leonean heritage was refused admission to school; in Texas two Nigerian students were rejected from a school because they came from a country that had some confirmed Ebola cases.
On top of such humiliations, some people revel in commercialising from the misery of others. During the last Ebola crisis, some traders were selling blood-stained T-shirts on Amazon with the inscription “My friend went to Africa and all I got was this Ebola Infected T-shirt”. This trend continues today: one can buy a T-shirt with the inscription “Coronavirus Made in China” from Amazon for $25.75.
The coronavirus is a deadly disease that needs to be taken seriously; however, it shouldn’t be used as a basis to dehumanise 1.4-billion people. The Western media should live up to its responsibility by avoiding scaremongering and preventing hate crimes. Western leaders should also intervene by stating that the dehumanisation of a race has no place in a functioning democracy.
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA, is a London-based writer and antiracism campaigner.