In less than 3 months, the threat of COVID-19 has led to national lockdowns all over the globe. Being of an extremely viral pneumonic nature coupled with a long asymptomatic incubation period, its exponential spread has had scientists scrambling for a cure. Declared a pandemic by WHO in early March, COVID-19 has become the main topic for economic and political forces to tackle.
In mid-February, WHO named the new virus COVID-19. This replaced earlier terms such as the “Chinese Virus” and the “Wuhan Virus” in order to avoid making references to specific geographical locations, groups of people, and animal species. This is in line with international guidelines for naming, in an effort to prevent stigmatisation of places or people.
“Previous incidents such as Ebola or Zika were named after geographical places, Under a set of guidelines issued in 2015, WHO advises against using place names such as Ebola and Zika – where those diseases were first identified and which are now inevitably linked to them in the public mind. More general names such as “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” or “Spanish flu” are also now avoided as they can stigmatise entire regions or ethnic groups”, the WHO said.
Regardless of WHO’s efforts, some, like Donald Trump, are adamant in calling it the Chinese Virus. Within his administration, a new term was introduced: Kung Flu.
CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang first brought attention to this term on Twitter, when a White House official used the term ‘Kung Flu’ to refer to COVID-19 during an interview. Another term invented by Terrence K. Williams, a self-proclaimed comedian, is the ‘Ching Chong Virus’. The usage of derogatory slurs is concerning, and both incidents seem to stem from the same mindset of xenophobia. It is made worse as they were perpetuated by influential people and those in positions of power. This could very well be unconsciously used as fear-mongering tactics against Asians. Although some may try to justify it as being a joke, using such a term has far more racist consequences. It alludes to the false narrative that COVID-19 is an affliction for people of Chinese descent, or for whoever looks even remotely Chinese. In other words, people started to associate COVID-19 with East Asians, particularly the Chinese.
There are personal stories of Asians being sectioned off or even barred from restaurants and other public spaces because they were suspected of having the virus, based solely on race. Reports of Asian people being on the receiving end of microaggressions, verbal altercations, and even physical assault splash the front pages of news. A school in Belgium had students dress up in panda costumes as an obvious allusion to one of China’s national animals and traditional clothing from several East Asian cultures. They held up a sign that said “Corona Time” for a picture that went viral and received backlash on the internet for the explicit racist sentiments. The stigmatisation WHO was trying to prevent did not slow down.
At the start, comments under COVID-19 reports have had non-Chinese people condemning Chinese eating habits, by cherry-picking extreme examples and ignoring eating habits of other cultures. Blame was put on the Chinese government for lackadaisical laws regarding exotic foods, following reports as they point out the epicenter of the virus: a wet market specialising in exotic meats. Back home, some even attributed the virus to divine intervention by theorizing that the virus was retribution against Chinese citizens for the alleged oppressive treatment of Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province.
Some also blamed the Chinese government for not coming clean sooner regarding the virus, placing doubt on their transparency and reported figures. In such reasoning, it denotes a sense of inflating the perpetrators’ own sense of cultural and political superiority, as well as a sense of distance from the pandemic. However, as Writer Bryan Wong states, “It’s one thing to call out the government for incompetence and lack of transparency, it’s another to cast judgment on 1.4 billion people, treating them as a homogeneous bloc of uneducated people to be pitied and feared.”
But the virus doesn’t operate based on race or creed; as shown by Europe, now known as the biggest epicenter of the outbreak outside China. The entire world is now battling COVID-19. This further fuels anti-Chinese sentiments, as people start to point fingers, and jokes turn into vicious verbal and physical altercations, as seen by a Singaporean’s experience in London.
One reason why victim blaming would be prevalent is fear. As humans, we naturally fear uncertainty and danger, especially when that uncertainty involves unpleasant outcomes. We try to put distance between ourselves and those outcomes, and try to minimise uncertainty by finding reason in self-perceived patterns. In this context, by framing the Chinese as being savages who eat anything, non-Chinese hold on to the belief that they may be able to distance themselves from the virus (allegedly spawned from ingesting infected bat meat).
The mindset of ‘Oh, I don’t do that, I’m not like *insert race here*, hence they get *insert bad outcome*, and I won’t.’
Although a pandemic can begin anywhere, such stereotypes may be a coping mechanism for people as they try to pin the blame on others, effectively removing themselves from the equation in their minds. These stereotypes add onto existing schemas for categorising racial identity, and, in other words, add fire to fuel, exacerbating racism in those with racist tendencies. Only time can tell how this will all play out.
Of course, xenophobia and racism isn’t prevalent in everybody; in fact, there are allies everywhere who help call out racist behaviour, who help out suffering small Asian businesses, and who advocate for our wellbeing. News reports that cover these hate crimes help bring light to these issues, allowing us to advocate and make changes for ourselves and for our community. One racist act is one too many, as we are quick to realise. As we stomp out COVID-19, we should also eradicate the racism virus that seems to spread just as quickly. Both are equally destructive in different ways, but I believe in the kindness of strangers and of friends. There is a turning point to all this.