The Racialisation of Coronavirus
CJ Werleman on why the tropes of Orientalism are at play towards Chinese people over health concerns, in the same way that Muslims are targeted through the ‘War on Terror’.
With more than 10,000 confirmed cases of and 350 deaths so far from coronavirus, the spread of anxiety and fear has become as contagious as the virus itself, sparking a wave of racist and Sinophobic news headlines and political discourse, and leading to a spike in racially-motivated hate crimes against Chinese people and anyone perceived to be Chinese in cities across the world.
Despite the fact that coronavirus is not a “Chinese disease” and the widespread debunking of claims that the current strain (2019-nCoV) originated from the consumption of bat soup, the racialisation of the disease and the otherisation of Chinese culture has dominated global headlines.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers – which profit from sensationalised, xenophobic and racist headlines – are at the forefront of an effort to racialise the outbreak of coronavirus, with Australia’s the Herald Sun publishing a headline that referred to Chinese Virus Panda-monium, while its Sydney counterpart the Daily Telegraph announced: China Kids Stay Home.
In France, Le Courier Picard unashamedly featured the words Le Péril Jaune (the Yellow Peril), while newspapers throughout the United States have referred to the coronavirus as the “China Virus” or “a Chinese virus”.
British tabloids have fared even worse, including the Daily Mail, which published old videos of Chinese people consuming bats and mice, even though one of them was shot on the South Pacific island nation of Palau, and despite such cultural eating practices having nothing to with the current outbreak and being outside the mainstream in Asian cultures.
“At a time of heightened fear over a viral pandemic, the Palau video has been deployed in the United States and Europe to renew an old narrative about the supposedly disgusting eating habits of foreigners, especially Asians,” observes Foreign Policy journalist James Palmer. “Images of Chinese people or other Asians eating insects, snakes, or mice frequently circulate on social media or in clickbait news stories.”
Conspicuously absent from the media’s coverage, of course, are the kind of illegal and moral food industry practices found ubiquitously throughout the Western world, not to mention the eco-destruction caused by the beef industry and commercial fishing, and the frequent outbreaks of disease caused by steps along the food processing line.
Remember ‘Mad Cow Disease’ or the current E-Coli crisis in the US? It should be obvious that, when 35,000 Americans die every year from influenza – a virus that shares similar biological traits to the coronavirus – nobody blames the victims for their eating habits or Western cultural practices writ large.
“It made me really frustrated and angry at how misinformation and racist perspectives in the media and online translates into real experiences for affected minorities, and it’s devastating that some opportunists are jumping on this to spread racist and xenophobic rhetoric,” Pan, a 27-year-old Australian citizen with Chinese-Malaysian heritage, told SBS News.
Locating a contagious virus – one that does not discriminate against race, religion, culture or creed – within Chinese food culture is no different than locating ‘Islamic’ terrorism in the religious practices of Muslims, rather than where it really lies: within broader, geopolitical forces that produce injustices and a real or perceived sense of victimhood in certain Muslim communities.
In racialising coronavirus, the tabloid media is capitalising on right-wing populist sentiments, specifically those that promote ideas pertaining to Western cultural superiority over the inferior Asian ‘other’, which mirrors the kind of Orientalist tropes that underpin the ‘War on Terror’.
Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said, the founder of the academic discipline of post-colonial studies, operates as a looking glass through which Western commentators imagine Western superiority over Arab and Asian people by exaggerating, emphasising and imagining cultural differences to portray non-Westerners as “exotic”, “uncivilised”, “backwards” and “dangerous”.
“If Orientalism were an Instagram filter, it would take any picture of any person, event or thing and distort its appearance to be ‘other’ and in some way inferior,” observes Zeba Khan, director of development at the online magazine Muslim Matters.
In the discourse on the ‘War on Terror’, Islam and Muslims represent a threat emerging from an inferior, uncivilised or backwards culture; one that must be feared, controlled or be dealt with through morally and materially superior Western nations. The media has framed the spread of coronavirus in similarly racist tropes, pitting ‘them’, culturally inferior Asians, as a threat against ‘us’, culturally superior Westerners.
“It’s been a tough week… we are very fearful [of the virus]… but, at the same time, we are also being targeted with racism and a lot of unwanted attention,” a 20 year-old Chinese Australian man told SBS News.” The way I would put it is right after 9/11, people looked at every Muslim as if they were terrorists, and that’s how people are looking at us.”
In the minds of many, Islam and China remain mysterious and outside of mainstream literacy, making each an easy target for exaggerated perceptions of threat, particularly when it comes to terrorism and infectious disease.