As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the globe - inducing significant fears and uncertainties - there have been particularly devastating ramifications for Chinese nationals and those of East Asian descent who have been hit with a wave of racial discrimination and abuse.
The racialisation of pandemics is, regrettably, not a new thing. This was similarly the case throughout the outbreak of both SARS in 2003 and Ebola in 2014. Infectious diseases become a tool for those who wish to propagate a racist narrative, one which feeds on and exploits genuine fears. One 2018 study, ‘The Politics of Disease Epidemics,’ examines how disease outbreaks are inherently burdensome to marginalised populations who are made to bear the brunt of a cruel culture of blame.
Looking at the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic outbreak in Canada as a clear example of this racialisation, the study found that a significant proportion of the literature surrounding the disease examined how the public attributed blame to the Asian-Canadian community for “bringing” the outbreak. As a result, the epidemic became heavily racialised, inciting racial tensions and ultimately leading to the social exclusion of the Asian-Canadian minority.
We are witnessing this again amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic. Since the rapid spread of coronavirus in Wuhan in January 2020, Chinese and East Asian communities across the globe have reported a spike in racially-motivated hate crime. Experiencing both physical assault and social ostracisation, the outbreak has had dangerous repercussions for entire communities.
Chinese-British citizens born and raised in the UK have expressed their devastation as fellow Britons have displayed brazen hostility towards them. The result has seen hundreds of local Chinese businesses struggling to stay afloat against a tide of Sinophobia, with some Chinese restaurants reporting as much as a 50% drop in bookings since the rapid rise in coronavirus cases.
With this, there are the less obvious, more concealed forms of anti-Chinese sentiment that have long existed throughout Western nations, far preceding any infectious disease pandemic. Steeped in Sinophobia and orientalism, the West often holds a distorted perception of China and its people, one which views the People’s Republic as an “other”; inferior, uncivilised and archaic. COVID-19 has merely amplified such sentiments, giving Western voices a supposed justification to convey unabashed contempt for Chinese culture.
With Donald Trump describing COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” and social media platforms rife with conspiracy theories surrounding the origins of the virus, we have seen an incessant and relentless display of “othering” across the West. Perhaps the most explicit example of this is in the case of a widely-shared video which permeated social media following Wuhan’s outbreak of the virus, showing a woman eating bat soup. Despite the fact that this video had in fact been recorded in Palau - not in China - it was an easy target for those who wished to spout untruths surrounding Chinese culture, and about where exactly COVID-19 originated. With scientists believing that the COVID-19 virus may have jumped from bat to human, China’s wet markets became heavily scrutinised and conveyed as abhorrent and primitive.
This fuelled dangerous accusations which hold Chinese nationals responsible for the spread of the coronavirus due to eating habits - something which fails to consider the whole story and is rooted in arrogant hypocrisy.
Those who disseminate this narrative conveniently disregard the reality that, to many Chinese people, consuming wild animals is “a cultural outlier” and that 80% of people in Beijing are opposed to wildlife meat markets.
Yet, even if this were the norm, the Western obsession with Chinese wildlife markets is one which entirely lacks self-awareness. In the UK alone, dishes such as black pudding - a type of blood sausage - and haggis - predominantly made up of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs - are consumed regularly. At which point, then, do we admit that such scathing attacks on China for the consumption of a particular animal, is symptomatic of deep, underlying prejudices?
It is a case of double standards rooted in a colonialist ideology - one of superiority, which fails to recognise its own damning flaws. And unfortunately, it doesn’t end here. The pandemic has been exploited across the West to launch attacks against the Chinese system and its handling of the virus in order to promote liberal democracies in an ever-predictable manner which says that, actually, we in the West know best.
Yet, what is becoming painfully clear, as the coronavirus continues to spread across the US and Europe, is just how pitiful these very systems we so desperately attempt to uphold as “advanced” and “progressive” truly are. While the UK government had seven weeks to prepare for the virus - with the invaluable opportunity to observe how it unfolded in other countries - Prime Minister Boris Johnson went against all WHO (World Health Organisation) advice, initially proposing “herd immunity.” This approach would have seen the most vulnerable - the elderly, immunocompromised and homeless - put at unnecessary risk. Had a non-western country, such as China, proposed this, it would have been deemed an indictment of authoritarianism.
Trump similarly failed to impose robust support measures in the US, with the situation currently escalating each day. With a health system based on profit and not human need, the US is sure to suffer gravely. We are seeing this already; the US now has more confirmed cases than any other country, overtaking China.
Responses to pandemics are, inherently, political. The West’s desire to shape the world through its own self-image is slowly but surely falling apart, yet its superiority complex reigns supreme. This is not a case of political point scoring; it is a case of urging necessary re-evaluation. The West’s contempt towards China throughout this pandemic is part of a bigger picture - one whereby it sees itself as worthier. China is by no means perfect, but the West ought to take a deeper look at its own failures before reprimanding those of others.
- Holly Barrow is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers based in the UK and Ireland.
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