Coronavirus Reactions and the Politics of Xenophobia
“Now what do I do?”
The question kept echoing in my head last Friday. Checking my messages after waking up, I could scarcely believe what I saw. While I’d been getting a few hours of sleep, Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, announced my country was suspending all flights to and from China — an attempt, he said, to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has killed at least 492 people and infected another 24,000 worldwide as of Wednesday morning.
I didn’t know how to react. Just before Conte announced the move at a press conference, I’d bought a ticket to go back to Italy. I teach art theory at a university in the eastern city of Nanjing, but after the school announced it was indefinitely delaying the start of the spring semester, I agreed to my mother’s request to spend some time with my family in Massa, a small city in northern Tuscany. But looking at the news, I had no clue whether that was even possible anymore.
I tried to contact the travel agency through which I’d booked my tickets, only to learn I was customer number 1,301 in the queue. No one at the air carrier’s customer service picked up. I started to call anyone I could think of, but nobody — including people I know who work for the Italian government — could give me a clear answer on what to do. Conte’s announcement came just one day after World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the virus an international public health emergency, while also explicitly stating there was no need for measures that would “unnecessarily interfere with” travel and trade.
Although my mother insisted that I should nonetheless try to make it back, my gut told me things wouldn’t work out. So I opted against boarding my plane to Beijing, where I was scheduled to catch my connecting flight to Italy. It turns out I’d made the right decision. Shortly before the plane was set to depart, a text message informed me that the second leg, from Beijing to Milan, had been canceled. On the positive side, I dodged the worst-case scenario: being stranded at 2 a.m., 1,000 kilometers from my home in Nanjing.
To be clear, my original decision to fly back to Italy was not motivated by fear. Over the last few days, I’ve received dozens of messages from friends all over the world asking me how I was doing. People everywhere are talking about the current situation in China in post-apocalyptic terms: dead bodies in the streets, food shortages, and martial law. At least where I am in Nanjing, I have seen nothing of the sort.
It’s certainly a moment of crisis. People are getting sick and dying. And even those not sick have had their lives altered by the radical measures the Chinese authorities have implemented in order to contain the coronavirus’ spread. Still, without forgetting the risks posed by the epidemic or ignoring the unfolding human tragedy, the vast majority of Chinese are not in imminent danger of death or starvation.
And yet, like most non-Chinese residing in China that I know, I now spend much of my day answering panicked questions and debunking obvious falsehoods sent to me by frightened relatives and friends. Nerves are running high enough that a conspiracy theory about the virus being a bioweapon — for which there is no evidence — seemed plausible to many of my acquaintances.
What’s behind all this fear? The answer to this question is certainly complex, but in this case I can think of two main factors. First, there’s the global rise of clickbait, fake news, and misleading information. Even academica isn’t immune. Take for instance a widely shared academic article that suggested the virus’ makeup was “unlikely to be fortuitous in nature.” In other words, this preprint — that is, an article that hadn’t gone through the standard peer-review procedure — hinted that the virus had possibly been engineered.
Vocal criticism from the scientific community led to the paper’s quick withdrawal, but not before it contributed to narratives like the above-mentioned bioweapon conspiracy theory.
The second reason is perhaps even more alarming: the triumph of politics over reason. In times of crisis, it’s important to listen to neutral experts over ideologues. The WHO cautioned against suspending travel or trade, but some governments, including Italy’s, seem willing to disregard expert opinion in favor of catering to domestic politics. Conte’s rushed decision was likely just a desperate stunt to shore up support from the country’s right-wing populist Northern League Party and its powerful leader Matteo Salvini.
Regardless of how you view Conte’s actions — or those taken by other governments — one thing is certain: These politicians’ rhetoric is often grounded in sinophobic or xenophobic sentiment.
Too much of the discourse surrounding the current crisis has been influenced by, or plays into, the kind of outdated narratives scholar Jeff Bass explores in his work on epidemics and imperialism. The Western world, Bass argues, often depicts itself as a civilizing force, justifying its imperialistic tendencies by the need to control and quarantine the chaos of the so-called Third World.
A widely shared video of a Chinese woman eating bat soup offers a perfect example of what Bass was talking about. Many commenters saw the video as proof that Chinese culture is filthy, thus justifying their impulse toward segregation and containment of the country’s people. Yet the three-year-old video, which features Wang Mengyun, the host of an online travel show, wasn’t filmed in China, but at a restaurant in Palau, an island in the western Pacific.
It’s worth noting that the origins of the current outbreak remain unclear. Any connection between the novel coronavirus and the wet market in Wuhan where some of the first cases were identified — and where bats are not even part of the local cuisine — is still highly speculative.
But more to the point: Wasn’t Wang simply following in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain? The celebrity chef built his reputation on his adventurous “I’ll eat anything” attitude, for which he was praised as an ambassador of open-mindedness.
It’s easy to see how reactions and policies differ when epidemics occur in Western countries. In April 2009, for example, the H1N1 “swine flu” virus killed thousands of people in the United States and Mexico without generating the sort of racially tinged narratives we see today.
I do not mean to say we should let down our guards against this deadly disease. But we cannot dress up racism in the guise of scientific or medical concern, either.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A man holds a boy’s hand at Shanghai Railway Station, Feb. 3, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)