anthropology, public health

Xenophobic narratives surrounding the coronavirus have spread as quickly as the deadly disease itself

Last Updated: 2/28/2020, 9:42 PM CST – Section on Chinese wildlife consumption.

In the last few weeks, the coronavirus, officially termed COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO), has infected thousands around the world. As of February 27th, it has been responsible for almost 3,000 deaths and more than 80,000 cases over 50 countries. Escalating from a few isolated cases to an epidemic that economists fear could trigger a global recession, the coronavirus could impact the lives of billions. Yet, one aspect of this disease has been rarely discussed by the news and media. How does the recent outbreak affect xenophobia around the world, and what are its impacts on members of our society?

To understand the nuanced impacts of this problem, we must first understand how sinophobia, or racism against Chinese people, originated after the outbreak. According to the WHO, the epicenter of the outbreak was located near a street market market located in Wuhan, China where raw animals such as bats, snakes, and pigs were sold. Many around the world were quick to denounce Chinese people for these culinary practices, blaming them as the root cause of the epidemic.

Yet, these blind, sweeping criticisms are often culturally ignorant of the conditions at the heart of these culinary practices. Due to socioeconomic factors in China such as widespread poverty, population growth, and lack of food production, local authorities often permit the sale of wildlife (what we think of as “uncommon foods”) in markets as a necessity to stimulate the local economy due to broader trends of slowing economic growth. Furthermore, farmers are often forced into illegal trading if revenue from legal farming methods isn’t enough to sustain their families. This debate has drawn tremendous controversy, and both proponents and opponents offer valuable reasons why they’re correct; it doesn’t seem that there is a clear solution to all this.

However, what hasn’t been disputed is the impact these perceptions have had on Asians around the world.

As the threat of COVID-19 grew in magnitude, Asians began to face discrimination and fear at school, work, and public places around the world. For example, one mother tweeted her child’s story of being “tested for coronavirus” by classmates in school, an action which left him feeling ostracized and skeptical of his friendships. Many commenters responded to the tweet by describing their own similar experiences; this certainly wasn’t an isolated circumstance. 

A choropleth world map of coronavirus cases by country. Source: Daily Express.

Sinophobic rhetoric not only affects people psychologically but also has tangible impacts on the level and quality of care that can be used to contain the disease. International healthcare workers and professionals can be deterred from volunteering in China because traveling there is associated with stigma from their family and friends. Furthermore, in the U.S., healthcare workers can subconsciously feel fear when working with Asian patients and instead worry for their own well-being, which can reduce their quality of care. Yet, paradoxically, this very lack of empathy in healthcare enables the disease to spread further, which exacerbates the public health crisis in a positive feedback loop.

Furthermore, the xenophobic rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus parallels similar waves of racism throughout history: the 2014 outbreak of Ebola (towards African Americans), the 2003 outbreak of SARS (towards Asian Americans), and the 2009 H1N1 swine flu (towards Latinos and Mexicans). As far as one can look back in American history, there’s an unfortunate trend that ostracizes and blames minority communities for disease.

It’s clear that an attitudinal change needs to occur, not only because of our ethical commitment to living in a society free of xenophobia, but also to more adequately address the public health crisis and save the lives in danger. But how can this change happen?

As a society, we must come together to denounce racialized rhetoric and instead focus on providing compassionate care for those affected by the coronavirus. By building this common bond with those in need, we can contain the virus more effectively. As epidemiologists worry that coronavirus could become the feared Disease X, humanity’s ability to unify under this common cause may be more important now than ever.


Further reading

Aguilera, Jasmine. “Harmful Xenophobia Spreads Along with Coronavirus.” Xenophobia ‘Is A Pre-Existing Condition.’ How Harmful Stereotypes and Racism Are Spreading Around the Coronavirus, Time Magazine, 3 Feb. 2020, https://time.com/5775716/xenophobia-racism-stereotypes-coronavirus/.

Benton, Adia. “Race, Epidemics, and the Viral Economy of Health Expertise.”, The New Humanitarian, 25 Feb. 2020, https://thenewhumanitarian.org/opinion/2020/02/04/Coronavirus-xenophobia-outbreaks-epidemics-social-media.

Master, Farah. “’Animals Live for Man’: China’s Appetite for Wildlife Likely to Survive Virus.”, Thomson Reuters, 16 Feb. 2020, https://reuters.com/article/us-china-health-wildlife/animals-live-for-man-chinas-appetite-for-wildlife-likely-to-survive-virus-idUSKBN20A0RK.

Wald, Priscilla. “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative.”, Duke University Press, Jan. 2018, https://dukeupress.edu/contagious.

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