Written By: Zoë Abernethy
“In one of the first weeks back to a new semester, I was walking to class with an acquaintance when I briefly mentioned the Coronavirus hysteria that has been gripping the global community as well as Western’s campus. They immediately ran with the opportunity to rant a long list of ill-informed, racist, and xenophobic beliefs that went something along the lines of: “why do these stupid people eat bats?! Why didn’t they shut down the entire county a month ago? They knew about it and said nothing, and now they are all coming back to campus after winter break or going to visit for Chinese New Year and we are all FUCKED.” Yes, the word fucked came up multiple times; and yes, “they” really mean Chinese international students. I could tell how uncomfortable those around us were, and after attempting to show them some perspective I changed the subject when I realized they just weren’t getting it”. - Elisabeth Edwards, 4th-year FIMS student
As students at a predominantly white school in the West, many of us are probably more familiar with encountering casual racism in group settings than we’d like to be. There’s probably someone, or some people, that come to mind when reading the story above, people who casually reinforce racist and xenophobic stereotypes/ideas as if they were simple, harmless facts. My point is that it would be wrong to say that xenophobia has ever gone away; however, it’s definitely become less socially acceptable and therefore less commonly expressed in public settings, less often directed at racialized people, more often discussed in groups of friends or in virtual spaces such as social media, where people feel safe. Before the Coronavirus hysteria hit, casual racism in regard to Chinese people often manifested in some form of the model minority stereotype; “positive” racism about Chinese people being studious, hardworking, rich international students and so on. While the harm caused by this kind of racism should not be dismissed, particularly because the mobilization of “positive” stereotypes can be conflated with neoliberal multiculturalism, making it harder to identify as an issue (a problem beyond the scope of this article), things took an ugly turn when news of the Coronavirus and its origin hit.
Hence, while xenophobia and racism were never really gone, there has been a noticeable shift in what is considered acceptable in discussions of Chinese people since news of the coronavirus broke. It’s almost as if a switch was flipped, and the superficial “political correctness” of our digital generation disappeared into thin air; “positive” or casual racism turned back into blatant xenophobia and racism directed at Chinese people, no longer contained in the comment section on Instagram or in private conversations. As soon as mainstream news picked up on the coronavirus story, the amount of Instagram and Twitter posts I saw either making jokes about the virus, or voicing disgust about the animals that “Chinese people” eat, was appalling. News of this virus revived old, absurd and harmful stereotypes about Chinese people being unhygienic and eating animals like dogs, cats and bats. While I’m reluctant to even address these stereotypes, I’ll just say this: if it wasn’t obvious, the vast majority of Chinese people don’t eat these kinds of animals, and the few who do are doing so in specific contexts, like living in poverty or being geographically isolated in very rural areas. It’s also important to remember that our concept of what animals should and shouldn’t be eaten is culturally, historically and socially constructed. Furthermore, it actually doesn’t matter how many people in China may or may not eat certain animals (though none of my friends had heard of bats being eaten, let alone being a delicacy), because regardless of the details, those being affected by the Coronavirus do not deserve to have it, nor are they at fault for contracting it, especially considering that it spread through human contact.
The impacts of the mass hysteria (and ensuing racism/xenophobia) that the constant news updates on the virus spreading have ensured go far beyond the Instagram comment section. One friend told me that he missed half a week of classes because he had a cough; despite feeling okay and not having been to China for years, he “didn’t want to scare people”. Another friend, whose family and friends are in Wuhan, told me that he cleared his throat in class and the people sitting behind him left. Many others who either are, or appear to be Chinese, describe people covering their mouths around them as if they themselves were a virus.
Imagine being on the other side of the world from your family and hearing that a potentially fatal virus is spreading throughout the country that your family and friends live in. You’d probably be very worried, stressed out and scared for their well-being. Now, imagine that you go online, and instead of seeing people empathize with those impacted by the epidemic, you see jokes, memes, and xenophobic takes on the issue, which essentially implies that it’s your entire home country’s fault that this outbreak has occurred. That would probably feel pretty shitty, right? Well, you still have to live your life, so you continue to go to class, go buy groceries and try to feel normal, but people are literally treating you like you physically embody this virus that you don’t have, but that is causing you serious mental distress because your family members are far more likely to catch it than anybody in the West. Nobody deserves to experience the xenophobia and the misdirected, unwarranted fear that this virus has provoked, yet far too many are forced to.
On January 29th, the President of Western University Alan Shepard announced via email the creation of the President’s Anti-Racism Working Group, a task force to address racism on campus. The timing of this email directly corresponds with the rise in racist, xenophobic hysteria surrounding exchange students and Coronavirus. In the following few days, Western’s social media accounts have shared a handful of reminders to not channel fear of the virus into xenophobic and racist attitudes towards Chinese students. I’ve also seen a few other social media posts that debunk some of the misinformation that much of the xenophobic reactions to the epidemic are based upon, though there are still a disproportionate number of fear-mongering, xenophobic posts circulating simultaneously.
Toronto’s mayor John Tory also publicly spoke out against the rise of racism and xenophobia towards Chinese people in Toronto, re-emphasizing that the actual risk of the Coronavirus impacting Canadians in any significant way is low. That said, when researching news reports on this speech, I found articles from conservative news outlets (like The Sun) which condemned Tory for downplaying the risk that the virus poses, and for conflating safety precautions with xenophobia.
There is something to be said about the justification behind this xenophobic behaviour, and that is the role of fear. People are terrified of the prospect of something affecting us on the scale of the Coronavirus in China, and it makes sense why people see the threat as larger than it really is due to the constant media updates on new cases of the virus throughout the world, as well as death rates in China. It is important to remember that the plethora of news stories about the virus can make the situation seem more urgent than it really is, especially because fear is a great way to attract clicks, which further motivates the fear-mongering that, to varying extents, underlies much of the news coverage on the virus.
It is very easy to fall victim to fear-mongering, especially in an age where so many things are uncertain and there is much to be fearful of that we can’t fully comprehend. While I personally haven’t felt too concerned about contracting the Coronavirus, a small part of me can’t help but worry about what would happen if I, or people I care about, did. Though, just to clarify, out of the four cases of the Coronavirus in Canada, only one person was admitted to the hospital and recovered in just a few days. If we look at the state of the world, and the sensationalist/click-baiting tendencies of mainstream media, it makes sense why people are so afraid, and this fear seemingly legitimizes racist and xenophobic attitudes and behaviour to those who partake in it. Some people are definitely just racist, but I think many are genuinely afraid and mismanaging their fear in a harmful, xenophobic way. Fear is not an excuse for racism and xenophobia, but it’s nevertheless a common motivator.
We need to collectively understand and teach others that the risk posed by Coronavirus is extremely low, and that those who contracted it and came back to Canada have been treated and recovered in a short amount of time. We need to collectively remind one another that the xenophobic, racist reactions to this tragic outbreak are unwarranted, wrong and incredibly harmful, arguably more so than the actual virus itself has been outside of China. We need to empathize with, and support our fellow students who are impacted by the virus to varying extents; by this, I mean we need to speak out against the xenophobic behaviour we witness, or at least stop liking, sharing and/or creating social media content that jokes about such a serious topic. Sure, wear a mask if you feel so inclined, and don’t treat those wearing masks as if they automatically have the virus, but don’t cover your mouth when you’re near a Chinese person or run away if you see them cough.
Finally, we need to do some serious self-reflection and consider why we’re so quick to demonize an entire loosely defined racial group, why we are so ready to switch into crisis mode, and why we continuously fall for fear-mongering when we all know it exists. We need to ask ourselves why these stereotypes were automatically revived, why the virus became so quickly racialized when we are supposedly this multicultural, “woke” global society.