Coronavirus is scary — but it shouldn’t be an excuse for xenophobia

A man putting on a surgical mask. (Photo courtesy of Elora J. Martinez)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

Coronavirus — you’ve seen it on the news, you’ve seen it in memes, but do you actually know anything about it? While the threat of coronavirus must be taken seriously, our society has allowed misinformation and fear of the disease to validate racism and xenophobia.

We see this on a national level, as President Trump recently enacted a quarantine on Americans in China’s Hubei province, ground zero for the outbreak. Some, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), have called for an outright travel ban. These moves are, naturally, lawmakers’ first instinct, rather than implementing public health security measures in airports or investing in widespread education about how to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Instead of trying to reduce panic and share accurate information about the virus, much of our government has given into the xenophobic impulse to shun foreigners.

Even on campus, I’ve noticed how easily people give in to these beliefs. East Asian international students at this university are stereotyped as always wearing surgical masks and made fun of for doing so. While many wouldn’t even identify this as xenophobia or racism, that’s what it is, and it’s been heightened by fears that Chinese students are bringing the virus to our campus.

As someone who frequently spends time in South Korea, my family wears masks primarily as a defense against the high pollution levels. The history of wearing masks in East Asia dates as far back as the early 20th century, when they were used to protect against influenza in 1918 and against ash and smoke in the air after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

No matter the reasoning behind wearing masks, East Asian students are mocked for the practice. Being an international student and coming into a new culture — and often a new language — is hard enough, but the nature and origin of the virus exacerbated the sense of “othering” these students must feel. We shouldn’t let coronavirus be an excuse to close ranks.

More generally, I’ve seen insensitive memes and jokes about the spread of the virus and its origin in China. Historically, Americans have accepted the idea that widespread disease originating in specific communities and countries implies something is inherently wrong with those communities.

One of the clearest examples is the AIDS epidemic, which led to numerous hate campaigns about the perceived immorality and promiscuity of the gay community. Instead of finding and spreading accurate information to prevent this community from being shunned, huge swaths of people believed that HIV/AIDS could be spread through any kind of contact.

Similarly, we have plenty of misinformation about coronavirus, and it is being used as an excuse to revert to tropes about the eating habits of the Chinese. Research has indicated the virus likely originated in bats or snakes. Many people took this as an opportunity to make racist jokes and comments about the stereotype of East Asian, specifically Chinese, people eating things they find “gross.” But, in my opinion, it’s not any more gross to eat snake meat than it is to eat the meat of any animal, or to boil animal bones and drink the broth like some kind of satanic ritual.

The fear of coronavirus is a fear of the unknown. Coronavirus has killed over 500 people, while the seasonal flu has killed between ten thousand to twenty-five thousand people between October and January alone. This isn’t to say that coronavirus isn’t dangerous, but we can’t let our fear drive us to shun people who aren’t like us, or whose cultures we don’t understand. Don’t fall into this trap – look for information that is accurate and question others when they use coronavirus to as an excuse to share their xenophobic beliefs.

This column has been updated. 

Liyanga de Silva is a senior English and women’s studies major. She can be reached at liyanga.a.ds@gmail.com.

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