The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Contagion of Racism


Since the Coronavirus has spread to almost every corner of the world, a disturbing trend has emerged as a small but notable demographic of people – often influenced by what they see from political leaders – have developed an unhealthy xenophobia towards East Asian people. One Japanese man recounted how he was coughed at by two men in the street, who went on to insinuate that he was “one of the bat people” – referring to scientists’ belief that COVID-19 transferred from bat to human. In another example of cruel xenophobia, an NHS nurse in the UK recollected her own upsetting experience, whereby she was pushed aside at the train station by a white couple while racially abused. Unfortunately, incidents like this are more commonplace than before.

You may have come across a video circulating social media which depicts a woman eating bat soup. This was wrongly attributed to China when in fact the video was shot in the Pacific island of Palau. However, after being shared around the time of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, it didn’t take long for a divisive narrative to take hold that this was evidence of why and how COVID-19 spread. When the US President labelled COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” he fed into this narrative and exacerbated hostility towards East Asians.

Since then, thousands of tweets have blamed “dirty” Chinese eating habits for the disease – mainly referring to the consumption of wildlife in China. Yet, you might reflect that 50 billion chickens and 1.5 billion pigs are slaughtered each year for human consumption – this is hardly remarked upon across the West, other than by those who promote a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. This is not to belittle the repercussions of rare wildlife being slaughtered, but it does highlight how cultural norms in the West are viewed as morally superior to those in the East, which are on the contrary viewed as inferior and even socially immoral.

Given the tragic death of George Floyd – and the huge demonstrations it led to – the current climate in the midst of the global pandemic is not one of stability but one of anger and frustration towards a President who is stoking xenophobic and fear-mongering language in relation to large swathes of the population. While the death of George Floyd came as a consequence of police brutality as opposed to COVID-19, it is essential to consider the various forms of racism currently pervading the globe.

Taking a look at previous infectious disease epidemics, racial hostility can also be observed. In Canada, SARS was sometimes attributed to the Asian community who were deemed responsible by some for “bringing” the outbreak to the country. Even as far back as 1854, the New York Daily Tribune wrote that Chinese people were “uncivilized” and “unclean”. It is devastating to recognize these same damaging tropes resurfacing amidst the current crisis.

Prior to lockdown, local Asian businesses in the US were struggling as a result of the pandemic, reporting a drastic drop in sales and bookings. Now, with Trump’s recent immigration ban, migrants in America – and Asian Americans who may be mistakenly identified as migrants – are becoming further stigmatized by the president.

Interestingly, there are very revealing contrasts in how the Coronavirus has been dealt with by countries around the world. Despite the West often being hailed as advanced and progressive, many of those nations often considered its subordinate have fared far better. While the UK initially advocated for herd immunity, other nations countered the virus early by enacting a national lockdown as soon as possible. Cuba, for example, has just 83 deaths and 2,045 confirmed cases. Their biotechnology has evolved rapidly to deal with dengue fever and meningitis, whilst one of their developments (Interferon Alfa-2b) is currently being trialed to combat Coronavirus. South Korea similarly responded to COVID-19 with a swift and resolute approach – so far it has 11,503 cases and 271 deaths, from a population of 50 million. Taiwan – with a population of 24 million – locked down before a single reported case and kept the number to 442 cases and just 7 deaths, a remarkable achievement.

In stark contrast, the West’s delayed and pitiful response to COVID-19 has seen the UK reach 275,000 confirmed cases and 38,489 deaths while the US has reached 1.82 million confirmed cases and 106,000 deaths. The racism and xenophobia displayed towards Asian people, their culture and nations – that they are somehow inferior and “backwards” in comparison to the West – are evidently false and in fact stem from archaic prejudices.

There must be an end to the prevailing attitudes of Orientalism demonstrated towards East Asians – and this should start with the language used by those in positions of power, namely the president of the United States.

Paul McShane is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organization of immigration lawyers based in the US & UK.