Although the causes of pandemics and their effects may be different, history shows that the demonization of certain minority groups is an all too familiar scenario when a nation struggles with a viral pandemic. A natural human reaction to a pandemic is fear, which frequently results in blaming individuals who are deemed outsiders.
According to Merlin Chowkwanyun, American historian and assistant professor of socio-medical sciences at Columbia University, the idea that people of other cultural backgrounds carry contagious disease goes back to the great plague in Europe, which caused many people to look for scapegoats and created a “rhetoric of blame,” which has been remarkably persistent through many decades and across many centuries.
When the great plague of the 14th century ravaged Europe, Jews, who were already considered outsiders by the Christian majority, became an easy scapegoat. When the Christian population found that members of the Jewish community were dying in fewer numbers from the plague than Christians, many Christians believed that the Jews were deliberately spreading the disease by poisoning wells and rivers.
Consequently, many Jewish people across Europe were tortured and killed by Christians. During further outbreaks in the late 16th to early 17th centuries, the fear of Jews was quickly transferred to all outsiders. There was in fact a proclamation issued during the reign of Elizabeth I, stating that if an outsider wanted to enter the city, he/she could do so only if they possessed a “special certificate,” which was usually for the very wealthy.
Similarly, during the yellow- fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, new European immigrants were the primary target of stigmatization. It was widely believed that new immigrants were responsible for causing the epidemic that killed more than 5,000 people. In the 1980s, when HIVAIDS wreaked havoc, the majority of the population in the United States put the blame on the members who were considered “outsiders,” namely, homosexuals, heroin addicts, Haitians and hookers.
They became victims of hate crimes. Furthermore, when the SARS pandemic, which originated in China, infected approximately 8,000 people worldwide and claimed 816 lives between 2002 and 2004, the Asian community was blamed for the epidemic. In both Canada and the United States, there were many cases of hate crimes against the members of the Asian community. Similarly, when the Ebola outbreak emerged in West Africa in 2014, Africans living in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe became targets of racism, discrimination and social alienation.
For this reason, the World Health Organization (WHO), which has overseen the global response to the coronavirus outbreak, opted against denoting a geographic location when officially naming the new virus, as it did with Ebola (named after the river in the Congo, where it was first detected). Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, recently warned: “Stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than the virus itself.”
Despite his warning, some media outlets and Republican leaders in the United States called the coronavirus the “Wuhan Virus” while President Trump continued to refer to the disease as the “China virus.” Since the outbreak of the coronavirus began in Wuhan in China, racism against East Asians, especially Chinese communities, has grown exponentially. The New York Times recently reported that Chinese Americans and Asians who look Chinese are being beaten, spat on, yelled at and insulted from coast to coast, which has forced some members of the Asian American community to buy firearms to protect themselves.
Research conducted at San Francisco State University found a 50 per cent rise in the number of news articles related to the coronavirus and anti-Asian discrimination between February 9 and March 7, 2020. The lead researcher, Russell Jeung, professor of Asian-American studies, said the figures represented “just the tip of the iceberg” because only the most egregious cases are reported by the media.
The United States is not alone in the overt display of xenophobia and racism towards the Chinese and other Asians. Anti-Asian bigotry was also witnessed in the United Kingdom, where the coronavirus has wreaked havoc. Asian students were pelted with eggs in Leicestershire, England. Businesses in Londons Chinatown have reported a steady slump, blaming it on the dissemination of “fake news” for the rising fear of eating Asian food. Recently, an Asian student from Singapore, who is attending a university in London, was so brutally attacked on the street that he required facial surgery.
In Rome, several cafes have prohibited the Chinese from entering. In Holland, several international student dormitories where Asian students reside have been befouled with hate speech and a Dutch student of Chinese descent was savagely knifed. Several international media outlets have reported on the harassment of Chinese and other Asians in Australia, where they have faced racial slurs, evictions and rejections from medical clinics and classes. In Toronto, around 10,000 people signed a petition urging the local school authorities to identify and separate Chinese students who may have travelled to China for the Lunar New Year.
These are just a few examples of the extent of racism and xenophobia against the Chinese and people of Asian descent, especially in the wake of the coronavirus. Sadly, the situation in India is no better. Numerous residents of the North-east states have lodged complaints with the authorities, citing increased instances of hate-filled messages and verbal attacks against them since the viral pandemic became a focus of all the major media outlets.
The residents of these North-eastern states are not only blamed for causing the pandemic, but they are also blatantly labeled as Chinese when they are in fact all Indian citizens. Very recently, the xenophobia of Indians against Italian tourists was also witnessed in a small village where the Italians had gone to look at handicrafts. The locals accused them of carrying the virus and began to heckle them.
Fortunately, the local government authorities rescued the tourists before the situation could get out of control. Several eminent social scientists have explained how conspiracy theories, which have historically been present in the public discourse during pandemics, contribute to xenophobia and racism. Professor Michael Butter, who teaches at the University of Tübingen, points out that conspiracy theories tend to claim that a group is clandestinely plotting to control and destroy an institution or a nation or the entire world. The dissemination of conspiracy theories can have severe consequences for some sections of society who are regarded as “outsiders.”
In the current climate of anxiety and fear, we are once again witnessing that misinformation and conspiracy theories are spreading as quickly as the virus itself. Many conspiracy theorists believe that the real reason for the coronavirus pandemic is due to an accidental leak of a biological weapon, which was created by the Chinese government in a laboratory in Wuhan. Another popular conspiracy theory that has gone viral on social media is that China created this pandemic as a strategy to dominate the world by damaging the world economy.
People who believe in these conspiracy theories, which have no basis in fact, also point out that China managed to stem the pandemic so quickly and effectively because they already had an antidote, which the Chinese didn’t share with the rest of the world. Many experts who have conducted research on the social effects of conspiracy theories have shown that spreading this kind of misinformation can have huge consequences in terms of stoking xenophobic and racist attitudes against certain members of the community.
Many countries, including India, already have a long history of treating the Chinese and people who look Chinese with suspicion and mistrust. This has resulted in many acts of overt racism and discrimination. These experts also believe that dissemination of these kinds of conspiracy theories against China have contributed to the recent surge of racist attacks targeted against people who are perceived as Chinese.
If the history of pandemics has taught us anything at all, it is that our instinctive desire to scapegoat some members of a community inevitably creates an epidemic of conspiracy theories that often has tragic consequences. As the coronavirus continues to spread worldwide, it is imperative that we learn from the lessons of the past and stop engaging in dissemination of misinformation and conspiracy theories that may very well contribute to increased racist and xenophobic attacks on innocent people.
(The writer is Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)