Opinion

A pathogen of prejudice: Coronavirus stirs up ancient hatred

By Charles Lotara

The coronavirus is spreading at an alarming pace from China to the rest of the world, and some countries are treating the phenomenon quite differently. Chinese nationals, especially those residing in Western countries are bearing the brunt as scorns of stereotypical hatred and racist slurs are poured at them.

In Toronto, Canada, fingers are being pointed at nearly 300,000 residents of visible Chinese descent as the spread of the virus continues to spark fear and anxiety. Canadian citizens, both on and offline are spewing hateful rhetoric against people of Chinese origin.

A video of a young Chinese woman using chopsticks to bite into a whole bat went viral on social media as the news of the Covid-19 spread. Even worse, the clip was picked by some mainstream media outlets. The video, according to the woman who is a video blogger, was filmed three years ago in Palau – a Pacific island nation, rather than in China. The reactions the video got were hate-filled and racially charged.

“You should go to hell. You should be killed in the evening. You’re abnormal. You’re disgusting. Why haven’t you died?” That comment branded all Chinese Canadians, who are not directly linked to the spread of the virus, as its carriers.

What angered the online community the most is probably the statement uttered by the vlogger that “Chinese eat anything and everything and infect the world with viruses,” prompting users to further label Chinese as “dirty people who can’t keep order.”

Food and hygiene slander have long been the spear tip of attacks by contemptuous Westerners seeking to make Chinese seem impossibly alien, and thus unassimilable and inadmissible to their so-called civilized countries.

Within Asia, ironically, the continent where China is based, spurring level of discrimination has taken another twist. Photos of stores and restaurant windows in South Korea and Japan shared on Twitter this week bear signs that say “No Chinese allowed.” Similarly, a café near Trevi fountain in Rome, Italy, posted a sign prohibiting “all people from China.”

Back at the turn of the 19th century, Chinese were commonly regarded as “dirty, heathen rat-eaters”. Newspapers op-eds took that stereotype, expanded and elevated to fearful, monstrous proportions, with an editorial in the September 29, 1854 edition of the New York Daily Tribune calling Chinese “uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions,” and warning the federal government to impose ban on further entry of Chinese into the United States.

In the United States, a white-run country where people have used ugly slurs on the savagery, backwardness, or filthiness of foreigners and immigrants as a way to rationalize their exclusion from the society, media outlets have been ordered to reduce the number of Chinese workers from 160 to less than 100 in a week. While this appears to be a diplomatic showdown and cold war between Washington and Beijing, the decision is a clear retaliation to the Chinese Communist Government move to simultaneously expel three American journalists from the Wall Street Journal over an opinion piece painting China as ‘the real sick man of Asia’.

“Mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and express opinion. The correct response is to present a counter arguments, not restrict speech,” U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo was quoted by The Washington Post.

In 1882, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act banning new immigrants from China entirely and making it illegal for existing Chinese in America to become citizens. The Act, the only law in American history to ever restrict entry to the U.S. explicitly on the basis of race was not repealed for 61 years, until 1943 when the Magnuson Act was passed to allow an entry quota of just 105 Chinese per year.

The bigotry perception of foreigners has resurfaced, coupled with the language of hatred, which President Donald Trump and some members of his administration often used against other communities, framing them as bestial and subhuman, as violent, barbaric, diseased and unclean. All these are said to justify unfriendly and inhumane immigration policies.

It’s reminiscent of the 2003 scenario when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which commonly infected bats, humans and other mammals hit the world. Only the Chinese died of the epidemic.

Today, the impact of the coronavirus is being felt by Chinese Americans, as researchers of Chinese descent, many of them U.S. citizens, are being purged from universities and technology companies, with questions of loyalty that haven’t been raised for decades popping up into the public sphere.

But it’s not just in the U.S. and the aforementioned countries. In Europe, and Germany in particular, a country with four confirmed cases of coronavirus, news outlets have featured commentators suggesting that Asians “deserve” what they’re getting, while train passengers cover their mouths whenever an Asian is seated next to them.

The contemptuous tendency of hatred from the West has not ended in Asia, but also cascaded to Africa – the continent which has recorded the least number of cases of the coronavirus infection. A Cameroonian student who got infected by the virus in China was treated and discharged, that left our precolonial and postcolonial oppressors with a huge question mark. Read a tweet from Agence France Presse (AFP).

“The coronavirus is spreading fast beyond its China birthplace but sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world’s most vulnerable regions, has so far been almost spared – and experts want to know why”. Even after enslaving Africans and impoverishing them by exploiting their resources, the West are unhappy that the continent, which is struggling to contain one of the most deadly pandemics in the name of Ebola is still free from Covid-19. They are not yet done with the black race. The outbreak of the coronavirus has brought that animosity to bear.  

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