Chinese officials recently confirmed over 31,161 cases of the new coronavirus, furthering a global wave of panic. This number surpasses that of SARS, a similar respiratory infection that spread across China, which killed nearly 800 people and cost almost $40 billion worldwide between 2002 to 2003.
Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicenter, has become a ghost town as individuals stay at home in fear. A video of a man in Wuhan has gone viral, as he describes the living conditions there: “Right now, the entire Wuhan has its entire transportation system, public transport, halted … gas stations are no longer in service.”
As governments and public health officials struggle to contain the crisis, fears of the dangerous outbreak have fueled xenophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment across the world.
A popular Toronto blog received racist comments on a review of a Chinese restaurant. In Hong Kong, Kwon Wing Catering, a small restaurant chain, announced that it would only serve patrons speaking English or Cantonese. The hashtag #ChineseDon’tComeToJapan has been trending on Twitter.
In South Korea, more than half a million people have signed a petition calling for a ban on visitors from China. Although only one of four cases of Coronavirus in South Korea was a Chinese national, many protesters stood together in Seoul wearing surgical masks, demanding the ban. On several online communities, Korean teenagers are beginning a boycott against Chinese products and restaurants.
Nearly 9,000 parents in Toronto signed a petition to prevent students who traveled to China in the last 17 days from attending school. One of the petition signers wrote, “This has to stop. Stop eating wild animals and then infecting everyone around you.”
Even here at UC Berkeley, the university health services faced backlash for normalizing racism after releasing an infographic that listed xenophobia as a “common reaction” to the coronavirus.
The world has seen similar waves of xenophobia in the past: disease often serves as a justification for ostracizing unwanted migrants and serves to perpetuate false stereotypes. In 2003, for instance, “businesses in Toronto’s Chinatown reported their customers dropping by 70 to 90%” as a result of the SARS outbreak.
Many of these concerns, however, seem to be inconsistent with the advice of medical professionals. During this time of panic, it is imperative to remain calm so that we can prevent fear from overriding true public health advice. The World Health Organization recommends “maintaining basic hand and respiratory hygiene” and “avoiding close contact, when possible, with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing or sneezing.”
Although the virus can be traced to a province in China, we have to be cautious that the coronavirus is not seen as a purely Chinese virus. Rather, we should—or, rather, must—work together to support those affected and mitigate this global issue.