OPINION: Fear of coronavirus fuels xenophobia

A cafe in Italy and a nail salon in Vietnam have banned Chinese customers. “Yellow Alert” was the front-page headline of the French regional newspaper Le Courrier Picard. UC Berkeley’s health center listed xenophobia as a common reaction to coronavirus in a now-deleted Instagram post

In the weeks since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, fear has flourished internationally. As more cases appear, it’s crucial to promote disease prevention without using the virus as justification for prejudice and racial profiling.

The racist reactions to the outbreak are partly a product of the narrative introduced by the media. It began, in part, with sensationalist descriptions of foods found in the “wet market” from which the first cluster of cases originated.

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, located in Wuhan, China, gained global attention when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported multiple coronavirus patients were linked to the market. The first coronavirus patient, however, had no known connection to the market, Science Magazine reported. 

Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease expert and professor at Georgetown University, explained to Science Magazine how new data published in The Lancet suggests person-to-person transmission may have been occurring in Wuhan as early as November before ever reaching the market.

The market has surely played a role in the disease’s spread. According to The Lancet’s data from one hospital in Wuhan, 66 percent of the coronavirus patients had been exposed to the market. The National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention under the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention collected 585 environmental samples from the market, 33 of which tested positively for the virus, Xinhua reported last week.

“My hypothesis is that the markets are where this jump occurred,” Pomona College biology professor Sharon Stranford said. “The thing with [viruses] is they don’t hang out long outside of bodies. They need live cells. Usually in a case of [animal-to-human transmission], it tends to be live animals with people in really close quarters.”

Reporters, scientists and social media users can and should acknowledge the wet market’s role in spreading the disease, but they must do so without using morally-charged, sensational language about the market’s contents.

At wet markets, people can purchase living or very-recently-living animals, so experts are understandably centering conversations about disease prevention around these markets, discussing everything from small reforms to flat-out bans.

However, the media’s portrayal of Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market seems overly focused on the strangeness of its available foods, as though the outbreak marks a moral and cultural failure. 

It is a warren of stalls selling meats, poultry and fish, as well as more exotic fare, including live reptiles and wild game that some in China prize as delicacies. According to a report by the city’s center for disease control, sanitation was dismal, with poor ventilation and garbage piled on wet floors,” The New York Times reported this week.

Other articles employ more overtly morally-charged adjectives. In recent headlines, words like “bizarre,” “inhumane” and “horrifying” have been used to describe these wet markets. 

By focusing on the perceived “weirdness” of the market, these articles sensationalize the foods enjoyed by market-goers and promote Eurocentric conceptions of what constitutes socially and morally acceptable food. 

And while reporters perpetuate undertones of disgust, social media users bluntly promote anti-Chinese anger. One Twitter user posted: “I can’t fucking believe it. Because of some folks in China who eat weird shit like bats, rats and snakes, the entire world is about to suffer a plague.” 

The post has been retweeted over 5,500 times.

In a study published last October, Durham University researchers found wet markets succeed in China because markets provide a social experience, vendors foster trust with their customers and consumers value the freshness of the foods they can purchase there.

Reporters, scientists and social media users can and should acknowledge the wet market’s role in spreading the disease, but they must do so without using morally-charged, sensational language about the market’s contents. 

Though viruses can arise in any country or community, the media’s condemnation of Chinese culture provided the initial platform for vitriol and continues to enable xenophobia. 

That said, social media has also become a place for resistance, a space where people experiencing xenophobia can share their stories and where misinformation can be countered with facts.

Nadia Alam, a Canadian physician, took to Twitter to discuss the profiling her son experienced. She wrote, “Today my son was cornered at school by kids who wanted to ‘test’ him for #Coronavirus just because he is half-Chinese. They chased him. Scared him. And made him cry.”

In response to Le Courrier Picard’s aforementioned headline, French Asians began tweeting the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus which translates to “I am not a virus.”

On TikTok, Asian teens are satirizing the suspicion they’re receiving from white peers.

Whereas other recent epidemics, such as Ebola or Zika, involved outbreaks of known viruses, this strain of coronavirus is completely new. In response to uncertainty about the virus itself and the course the outbreak will take, an outbreak of public panic — fueled by incorrect or insufficient information — has emerged. 

Amid the fear, it’s important to consider what we share on social media and how we may be complicit in perpetuating false narratives about the virus. We must ensure that what we communicate and share with the wider public serves to empower people with accurate, up-to-date facts and information.

“We’re being overly cautious because there is so much unknown,” Stranford said. “When do you panic and when do you educate? We need to educate right now.”

Lily Borak PZ ’21 is a writing and rhetoric major and biology minor from Newton, Massachusetts. She recently started learning how to embroider!

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