#IamNotAVirus: From "Wuhan Pneumonia" to Anti-Chinese Sentiment

There is another virus spreading--that of racism. Both Chinese and non-Chinese communities must depoliticize a public health crisis.

Author: Chiu-Ti Jansen   

After the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 travel advisory on China, the most severe warning possible, the Trump administration declared the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) a "public health emergency." The administration banned all non-U.S. citizens (other than immediate family members of U.S. citizens) who have recently visited China from entering the United States starting at 5 p.m. EST on February 2. 

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens who have visited Hubei Province within the past 14 days are facing a mandatory two-week quarantine.  Americans who have traveled to other parts of China in the previous 14 days will be subject to a health screening upon entry and are asked to self-quarantine for 14 days.

This marks the first time since the 1960s that the U.S. federal government implemented a mandatory quarantine. The new measure has not only sent the public into a state of high alarm, but has also laid grounds for racial bias. Will the Chinese drown in a new wave of anti-China sentiment?

In the days leading to the Chinese New Year, an article gained a wide circulation among Chinese parents living in the U.S. It provided guidance on talking to their children on the topic of "China virus" in schools. Just as Ebola virus is not a "Congo virus," H1N1 influenza virus is not a "Mexico virus," Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus is not a "Saudi virus," this new strain of coronavirus should not wear the hat of "China Virus."

But the reality is: this epidemic will inevitably damage China's image, while delivering substantive punches to its economy. If the virus continues to spread, factory shutdowns will continue, putting the entire supply chain at risk. The Chinese consumer products will also take on a negative association concerning their safety. The anti-China and anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, if not timely contained, will also wreak havoc on the already fragile U.S.-China relations.

The virus may have "originated" in China, but human factors have contributed to its explosive spread. The local Wuhan government, as well as the central government, is facing mounting criticism for not releasing the information to the public in a timely manner, missing the precious window of nipping the virus transmission in the bud before it got out of control. As more and more countries close their borders to China, Chinese people must face the border closure with a positive attitude.  This is because we must collectively prevent further spread of coronavirus across the borders.  If not, the virus spread overseas could return to haunt China even after its eventual eradication in the country. 

Globally, there is much skepticism regarding China's information disclosure mechanism, a result of Beijing's longstanding heavy-handed control of the media, step-up application of censorship and impeded inter-governmental reporting system.  The epidemic only exacerbates the distrust of the figures and facts released by the government.

In ancient times, plagues symbolized Godsent punishment for the bad deeds of a tribe. Those who contracted a disease suffered discrimination, seen as an "embodimentof the "evil forces." Sadly, such discrimination based on tribal mentality is still prevalent today. Within China, Wuhan people, Hubei people and people from other "epidemic areas," are being mistreated and marginalized. While fear of infection may come from a natural instinct for self-preservation, superstition may also be at work here. This mode of thinking could compel patients to cover up their illness rather than seeking treatment for fear of discrimination.  We as a society must stop this voodoo mindset.

The term "Wuhan Pneumonia," as the illness caused by the novel coronavirus is known in common parlance, carries negative connotations for the city and its residents.  Unfortunately, the virus is now taking on the sticker of China. A cover on the recent issue of The Economist depicted Earth wearing a medical mask of China's five-starred red flag.

Big disasters, often bringing out the worst and the best in people, always inspire stories like heartwarming stories of heroism and heartbreaking stories of hostility. While the latter may be a fact of human nature, we must do our best to fight against it. We must stand up with solidarity and demand an end to racial discrimination based on the outbreak of a virus. 

Such discrimination is everywhere. Some Korean restaurants put up signs saying "no Chinese entry."  More than half a million South Koreans have petitioned their government to deny Chinese entry into their country.

Thousands of Hong Kong doctors, nurses, and hospital employees have staged a strike to demand the Hong Kong government to close all borders to mainland China.

Twitter users in Japan have created a "Chinese don't come to Japan" hashtag.

In Singapore, more than 125,000 people signed a petition urging the government to block Chinese citizens from entering.

Similar petitions in Malaysia collected 400,000 signatures in less than a week.

A local French media outlet used the word "Yellow Peril" to describe the current epidemic, only to apologize later. Media also reported that some East Asians in France, irrespective of whether they are Chinese or have recently visited the country, are facing racial slurs. Tweets hashtags #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus and #ImNotAVirus are trending.

In Asia and the United States, South Koreans, Cambodians, and Vietnamese have reported that they have been the targets of racism-based abuses since the coronavirus outbreak. 

As the virus spreads, so do racism and xenophobia.

Most notably, videos of Chinese eating wild animals have spread on the internet. Joel Saladino, a controversial YouTuber who withdrew from contesting the southern Brooklyn congressional seat, lashed out in insulting and infuriating tweets that "China needs to chill with the bat soup," "Chinese culture seems to include eating alot of raw&disgusting animals/bugs.  I am not surprised by the #coronavirus."

A video of a Chinese woman eating a whole bat with chopsticks has gone viral in Western media amongst heated discussions of the outbreak in Wuhan, which led "Sinophobes" and some Twitter users to accuse the Chinese of "dirty" eating habits, especially wild animals.

However, a Foreign Policy article reported that the video was not filmed in Wuhan, and bats are not a Wuhan delicacy.  Instead, the video shows Mengyun Wang, an online travel show host, eating a local dish in Palau, a Pacific Island nation. 

It seems to me that at a time when the public is increasingly concerned with the viral pandemic, the misattributed video reveals another kind of virus, one of racism, which is always looking for a host to inhabit.  Sadly, it has found too many candidates. 

The article also points out that images of Chinese or other Asians eating insects, snakes or mice are often circulating on social media or in news reports as click baits. They play on a longstanding stereotype of Chinese as "dirtypeople. In 1854, the New York Daily Tribune wrote that "[t]he Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception . . . . "

What truly is dirty, however, is this type of prejudice.

Commenting on the resurging racial bias against Chinese food, a Vice article explains this unfortunate phenomenon:

"In the United States, where we're used to a limited protein range and a shopping model that puts plastic-wrapped, disembodied animal parts in cold cases at grocery stores, there's an undercurrent that what people in Asia eat is inherently "weird" and unsettling. When those eating practices are linked, however inconclusively, to health scaresas they are currentlythose beliefs become loud rationalizations for dehumanizing Chinese people and treating their lives as less worthy."

To stem the bundling of the new coronavirus with anti-Chinese sentiment, we need to first exit the mindset that collapses viruses with cultural habits. We cannot fight the novel coronavirus with full force if we also treat all quarantine considerations indiscriminately as bias-motivated.

On a personal note, I flew back to New York from Taiwan on January 30.  During the flight from Kaohsiung to Tokyo, where I landed for a transfer, all passengers and crew members, without exception and without requirement, wore a mask. On the way from Tokyo to the U.S., most passengers of Asian origin wore masks while non-Asians did not.

After getting off the plane, I saw the people wearing masks were mainly of Asian descent. Although there were suspected cases in New York City, masks were rarely worn on the streets of Manhattan.

On February 5, New York Post reported that a woman wearing a face mask was attacked at a Chinatown subway station after allegedly being called a "diseased bitch" in what police are treating as a possible hate crime sparked by coronavirus fears.  This incident has fanned anxiety among Chinese American communities.  

In fact, since the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, wearing medical masks to prevent contagious diseases have become a common sight in East Asia, particularly during flu season.  In other words, in Asia face masks are no longer an indicia of being sick.

After consulting the Chinese community leaders in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area, I found that despite many inflammatory discussions about the Chinese and their habits on social media, many Chinese still did not report outright discrimination in their daily lives.  But this could change rapidly.  It could be also a function of self-selection--choosing social circles populated with Americans and international people that are more open-minded and familiar with the Chinese.  Some Chinese also observed that virus discrimination, more often than not, was brought on by the Chinese against their fellow countrymen. 

There are also other sides of the story. The World Journal reported that two international students were subject to confinement in a special dormitory and regular temperature checks after returning from Wuhan to the University of Wisconsin. After a student at Arizona State University was confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus, a petition by some students to cancel classes has ensued. The University of Miami postponed its basketball games after two students returned from China with suspected symptoms. 

In this ambiance, the World Journal wrote, "many students feel the rise of anti-China sentiment, which is also affecting students of Asian descent. Some students have posted on the Internet that they would avoid all Asian classmates or avoid going to Chinatown."

Conversely, when the virus began to spread in China, many conspiracy theories have gain currency in parts of China, postulating the pathogen being a biochemical weapon launched by the "American Imperialism" attempting to curb China's rise.  Isn't this also a form of bias?

In Camus' novel The Plague, the lockdown of the infected city instilled an ultimate sense of isolation and formed a natural psychological barrier between those inside the wall and those outside. The plague brought to light the best and the worst of human nature. While Chinese and Chinese Americans need to stand up for our rights when facing racial discrimination, we also need to be thoughtful and not overreact, as it is sometimes hard to tell where health-necessitated quarantine ends and racism begins.  

My personal experience is that at least among the well-educated circles in the United States, openness is the best strategy. If I have a cold, I would do my best to avoid close contact with others in order to insulate them from infection. I have never felt discrimination because of this. Instead, my friends and colleagues responded graciously. The more one hides one's condition, the more one has to lose. I would rather miss a social occasion or a business opportunity rather than exposing others to ailments. If you embrace this mindset, I found, others will often embrace you with an open heart. 

We must also do our best to stop the politicizing and witch-hunt associated with the virus, viewing it solely as a public health crisis, nothing more. By doing so, we can put to rest conspiracy theories, such as one that propagates that the U.S. travel ban to China is intended to contain China's rise. What hurts the Chinese economy and markets hurts the U.S. and the world as well.  The White House has no reason to undermine the U.S.' stock market and short-term growth simply due to the dubious motivation of "strategic rivalry."

A letter from an American school to parents, later adopted by many Canadian schools, perfectly illustrates how we should see this health issue. It reads, "Everyone may get sick, so please don't isolate Chinese and anyone who is connected to China. You cannot discriminate against the patients, because this behavior will make those patients ashamed of themselves, so as to hide the illness, and reject to protect others. We are against the virus, not the Chinese. The more Emergency arise, the more need for calm, rationality, humanity, unity."

This letter is also written to the Chinese. It is not shameful to be ill. On the contrary, it is shameful to instigate racial prejudice or ethnic hatred based on the epidemic. It is shameful to endanger public health by covering up the infection.  Even as the public health crisis rages on, we must not let our minds become sick. For it is our minds, and our shared humanity, which stand as the last line of defense against the virus. 

An earlier version of this article appears in the Financial Times Chinese Edition

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