As Coronavirus death tolls and the number of diagnoses increase by the day, global panic rises in full swing.
This reception of the epidemic is a classic case of mass hysteria, largely due to misinformation spreading like wildfire. People worldwide are under the impression that they are in immediate danger. Apart from producing useless paranoia, the lack of awareness about the issue is pushing people into serious racist and xenophobic behaviors.
This isn’t the first time the world has seen such a phenomenon. The Corona is a family of zoonotic viruses. Our current novel coronavirus is COVID-19. SARS sent the world into a similar panic in the early 2000s. We saw a similar reception of Ebola in 2016. Both coronavirus and ebola erupted in bouts of racism against Asians and Africans respectively. There was a similar virus in the Middle East, too, under the name MERS that emerged in 2012. All these viruses had higher case-by-fatality rates than COVID-19 (10%, 50%, and 37%, compared to its current 2%).
China has been a target for ridicule because of their cultural eating habits for a long while now. It is because of these so-branded “weird” foods they eat that many are assuming the virus comes from something exotic they would consume, like dogs or mice. Following the spread of many rumors, people are now convinced the virus comes from a Wuhan seafood market, even when no concrete evidence of that has been released yet. Rumors that bat soup birthed the virus traveled from person to person, fueling the already existing notion stating that “foreigners have disgusting eating habits.” Experts, on the other hand, believe the virus comes from having contact with pangolins, small mammals that are widely trafficked in Asia; there is no conclusive evidence of human consuming them. This similar animal-to-human transfer happened with MERS through camels and SARS through civet cats.
The surprising light speed at which everyone turned against the Chinese shows a layer of racism that has been dormant for some time. Judging cultural eating habits and exaggerating their severity isn’t as harmless as we’d like to think. This takes on an ethnocentric point of view; assuming a culture is appalling because it’s different from yours. Making fun or being blatantly rude towards such things establishes a sense of superiority the Occident already has on the Orient, using the virus as “proof” that their judgments were well-placed all along and not racist whatsoever.
This, however, is all a bit sinister. Are we all racist deep down, hidden behind thinly veiled formalities? “The virus uncovered racist, orientalist attitudes, historicized with tropes that have always existed,” says Dr. Zeina Tarraf, a Media Studies professor at the American University of Beirut. “[These attitudes] were never really gone, and now they’ve re-emerged.”
People are justifying their discriminatory and racist behavior towards any Asian they encounter by diverting as loathing towards the Chinese for “spreading the virus.” On an international scale, Asians of many nationalities and ethnicities are being targeted. People who’ve never even been to China are being avoided on the streets, trains, busses. Asians with hyphenated nationalities are posting images and videos and sharing their stories of targeted xenophobia and racism. Especially in Lebanon, and to no one’s surprise, people are expressing their racism against their classmates, colleagues, and even domestic workers.
Macy Pamaranglas, a Filipino student at the Lebanese American University, opens up. “As I was leaving my class, I saw my close friend approaching. For the sake of not letting him catch a cold since I was sick, I told him to just stay away. A delivery guy waited for me to pass by and told my friend that I’m probably telling him to stay away because I have Corona…” Pamaranglas recounts other such encounters. “Joking about Corona isn’t funny. People are suffering and dying. (…) Making racist jokes doesn’t make you sound funny at all, and it clearly makes you sound ignorant.”
Racist jokes have been incessantly rampant on the internet recently. Videos and pictures depicting Chinese people as diseased, pariahs, outsiders, animals, and gross are trending everywhere on social media, mocking and teasing them. Trivializing the outbreak is not a healthy coping mechanism. “The craze is exaggerated. Now the truth isn’t important. It’s more about how this severity becomes used to justify harmful ideas,” Dr. Tarraf explained. When it comes to exaggeration, the news media is a big part of the blame for this global panic, mainly due to how news of the Coronavirus is being reported.
Reporters and TV stations are having a field day with the virus. News is taking a doomsday approach to the coverage of the situation, employing strong words and aggressive sentiments. LBCI tried to get #الكوروناـصابتنا (Corona has hit us) trending a few days ago when a case was discovered in Lebanon. This isn’t harmless as it sensationalizes the outbreak and frightens the viewers. “[The media] focuses on the numbers, which isn’t the right framework,” added Dr. Tarraf. This narrative reduces victims to statistics and the coverage has no human element. Furthermore, it takes away from the chance to properly educate the public on public health and on the effective actions to take in the case of national and global pandemics.
While it’s important to offer accurate data, blowing it out of proportion is unnecessary and harmful. It’s always important to put things in perspective. “People are dying from Corona” is different from “the Coronavirus has a 2% case to fatality rate”. News coverage should educate people and hold the panic down instead of amplifying it. It is also important for made up myths about the virus to be refuted publicly so rumors could stop spreading. Educating the masses and delivering unbiased, complete news of the virus is the only way to stop the nonsense that is targeted racism and xenophobia against over a billion innocent people that are already discriminated against.