When the coronavirus first emerged in the Wuhan province of China in late 2019, panic spread across the globe. Reports of people dying from the pneumonia-like virus were able to spread like wildfire and rumors of the virus’s deadliness sparked hoaxes and false narratives across social media platforms.
This series of events reminds me of what happened when the Ebola virus reemerged in late 2014. Panic swept across the United States as news of a patient from Africa returning to be quarantined at home was released. Along with this panic was another underlying panic: xenophobia and racism.
In 2014, this took the form of a Texas college sending letters to prospective students from Nigeria (which at the time was Ebola free) informing them they would no longer accept applications from countries with “confirmed Ebola cases.” An African American football player in PA was met by chants of “Ebola” from the opposing team. Two elementary schoolers from Rwanda (also free of Ebola at this time) were sent home for two weeks in New Jersey.
Similar reactions were expressed when news of the coronavirus was released. Although the World Health Organization hasn’t declared the coronavirus as an epidemic, it is classified as an international public health emergency.
Before the source of the coronavirus was confirmed, many news sources began to speculate that the virus came from animals eaten in Chinese culture, the main one being bats. A video from 2016 began circulating of a woman eating bat soup, a delicacy in China. It has been confirmed now that the virus did not emerge from bats directly, but more likely snakes who eat the bats and are then sold at markets across China.
This rumor of “bat soup” sparking the deadly virus spread led to social media users tweeting about the “unsanitary” food that Chinese people eat. Chinese restaurants in the United Kingdom have reported that business is lessening for fear of the way they prepare food. In addition to blatant ignorance about the source of the virus and how it spreads, citizens across the world have been treating those of Asian descent terribly.
One incident that stands out to me personally took place in late January when an older Chinese man suffered a heart attack in central Sydney, Australia. Instead of performing CPR, bystanders simply stood around and didn’t do anything until someone was called.
Let me make this clear to anyone who feels as though fear of a virus warrants xenophobia and racism: it doesn’t. Xenophobia and racism are prevalent enough in today’s world. While the coronavirus is terrible and deadly in many cases, attacking the Chinese for their food practices and customs which have been occurring for years before this virus emerged is ignorant on so many levels, and hurtful to those of Asian descent who take such pride in their customs.
My sister is a nurse in a major hospital in Raleigh. When I discussed the virus with her after news of a possible case in North Carolina, she told me the protocol hospital staff received in case of a possible coronavirus was no different from quarantine for the flu. If a medical professional is more worried about the flu than coronavirus, it’s safe to say that your worries have no basis.
My point is simple: while fear of a virus as deadly as coronavirus is natural, xenophobic and racist reactions are not. The way we treat people should not change because of a disease. Not only is it a disgraceful thing to do, it makes those who treat Chinese people differently because of a virus look like complete fools and cowards.