Updated: Mar 31, 2020
Racism is not an acceptable response to this crisis
Writing: Anushka Kumar
A twenty year old student walks into a pharmacy in Edinburgh to buy tape. She clears her throat, and instead of it being dismissed as a relatively normal thing for January, she is glared at and told that she should be buying a mask so as to not spread her germs.
Across the world, Chinatown businesses, Chinese takeaways and supermarkets have been abandoned because of myths about a virus.
An 11 year old child in London is isolated from her friends. The kids at school won’t play with her because she might give them a virus.
The list of incidents goes on, and on, and on. East-Asian people across the world are being isolated, harassed, stereotyped and gossiped about consistently since the outbreak of the new coronavirus in December 2019. A group of people whom the general public have perceived as threats, blamed for a global phenomenon that they have absolutely no control over; a phenomenon that they should not be associated with.
The reaction shows the underlying, unacknowledged but still evident, biases of the British public. As far as minorities in Britain go, Asian people are often viewed as the ‘model minority’ in that they are seen to be strictly rule and moral abiding, more intelligent than the norm, and affluent - and therefore the ideal minority to be included as citizens. Along with this comes the expectation that Asian people are less likely to make a fuss - less likely to become outspoken when something or someone is being discriminatory to them, because Asian people are taught to be grateful to Britain more than anything else. (1) This is not to say that anti-Asian sentiment is not as prevalent in Britain as other anti-immigrant sentiments are - but it is to say that anti-Asian sentiment has always been more subtle and nuanced, often hidden in structural racism and the faux-respectfulness of calling all Asian people smart and high-achievers, whilst also condemning Asian culture and traditions, and stereotyping Asians as dirty, rude, backwards, and strange - the odd stage of the ‘third-world’. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Anti-Asian sentiments have come closer to the surface, being excused by fear and ignorance. Frankly, these excuses are overused, irresponsible, lazy and insensitive. All it takes is a few simple Google searches, and basic human decency, to not become part of the hysterical mass.
So, what are coronaviruses? They are a large set of viruses that range, in effect, from the common cold to more serious pandemics like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-Cov) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-Cov). The current one, now officially named SARS-CoV-2, is being called the novel coronavirus (2019-nCov). Researchers at the University of Hong Kong have estimated that the number of people infected exceeded 175,000 at the time of publication, predicting that the number of infected cases will double every 6.4 days until the virus is contained. Comparatively, this puts the recent coronavirus on par with the SARS coronavirus outbreak of 2003 ;(2) the virus shares around 80% of its genetic code, but the current coronavirus is around 5 times less deadly. (3) The mortality rate of SARS was around 9.6%, whereas the current coronavirus currently sits at a mortality rate of between 1-2%. However, but it is important to note that these figures only reflect reported cases, those with milder symptoms may never visit a doctor, and recover without medical assistance. These figures are also much harder to estimate due to the fact that it is suspected that China is underreporting the number of cases within the country. (4) Despite the confusion surrounding numbers, the current mortality rate of n-Cov is around 30 times less deadly than the 2012 Middle Eastern coronavirus outbreak, which had a mortality rate of 34.4%, MERS-Cov being less contagious than the current coronavirus. (5) This is a new strain, but a new strain of a virus we already know. (6) So why has the world, for lack of a better word, fallen into a state of panic? In the age of ‘fake news’ and increasingly fast spreading misinformation, the hysteria and fear spread faster than the fact, and even faster than the disease itself.
Despite all the news about the novel coronavirus, there is a serious lack of understanding about what it means for us. News outlets have been flooded with news of the virus, making it seem like a much bigger threat than it actually poses to the majority of the world. Along with news outlets, come the public domain of social media. Social media has been flooded with misinformation, memes and genuine concerns about the virus. Somewhere in all of that, the actual facts have been lost.
Common myths about the virus - including that it’s the world’s first coronavirus, that it will be the pandemic to end the world, and that we are all on death’s door - have been taken as fact. As is the millennial way, these fears and faux facts have been translated into memes to be spread further, which has only served to strengthen the hysteria around a virus which is far less deadly than the average person believes. (7) We spend so much of our lives on social media that we forget that Facebook facts are rarely true, and in this case, we have forgotten that viruses will not discriminate according to race - we are just as likely to become carriers as the average person of East-Asian descent in Britain and so isolating already marginalised members of communities, and our peers, is about as unhelpful as telling the coronavirus itself to stop spreading.
The reaction the public has had to the virus is also indicative of the culture of blame that we live in. We’re so quick to look to others to take responsibility, especially when dealing with majority non-white countries, that we seem to have forgotten that actual people are suffering. As is usually the case with the Western world, we largely care selfishly. Our fear doesn’t come from genuine concern for others, it comes from fear that we might also get the virus and suffer. The reality is, the British public have chosen to blame China rather than sympathise. The labelling of the virus as a Chinese virus has been incredibly harmful. It has allowed for blame to be (mis)attributed to innocent people, based on assumptions grounded in very little to no fact. It has allowed for shameless trolling across the internet, with memes being made about biological warfare and condemning Chinese culture and people in a way that a white majority country would never be blamed so harshly and so widely.
As the virus spreads, and comes closer to those of us in Britain, it is important to remember that blaming one another, or other cultures for that fact, will not stop this virus. Researchers are working on a vaccine, but the process could take around 18 months to fully develop and test. Researchers across the globe are working together on it, learning from the previous SARS virus and how we reacted then.8 The good news is that because this isn’t the first time we’ve encountered a coronavirus, researchers and medical health professionals understand more about how to tackle it. As cheesy as it sounds, we also need to work together. Blaming one another will not help to end the spread, it will only serve to create divisions that mean that innocent people suffer in isolation. Given all that has happened in the world recently, we all need to work on being kinder to one another, and coming together to help each other up, rather than push each other further away.
1 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/28/being-a-good-quiet-and-assimilated-model-minority-is- making-me-angry
2 https://www.businessinsider.com/wuhan-coronavirus-75k-infected-doubling-every-64-days-lancet-say s-2020-1?r=US&IR=T
7 https://knowyourmeme.com/search?context=images&page=2&q=coronavirus+plague https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1714945-2019-20-wuhan-coronavirus-outbreak
Image: via contrainformacion.es