On Monday, Jan. 3, in an email addressing the coronavirus, University Dean of Students Amy Badal wrote, “Several students have reported overhearing insensitive or joking comments about the novel coronavirus.” These distasteful comments are not uncommon; in fact, I’ve heard my own friends hint at not wanting to get their nails done at a salon due to fear of the coronavirus. These small, inadvertent comments go beyond Lewisburg, Pa. There is mass hysteria and people’s fears are only fueling xenophobia and racism.
#Coronaviruschina is trending on Twitter, and in the midst of saddening videos of people in hospitals with masks and people collapsing to the ground from sickness, you’ll also find jokes like “China, stop eating everything that moves.” This disease has evolved from a serious infection harming people in our world to another social media fad. Instead of turning to the experts for the most updated and honest information, most people are reading and seeing misinformed posts on social media.
Seemingly, posting about the spread of the virus is beneficial to help people become aware, but sensationalizing a disease is insensitive and only driving the stigma against the Chinese. Your fear, however rational or irrational it may be, doesn’t justify racist or xenophobic behaviors and comments. As I write this, there are a total of 11 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States and no deaths. The virus’s symptoms are no different from those of pneumonia, but the racial target of the virus has heightened the anxiety and panic surrounding it.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since October 2019, there have been up to 310,000 flu hospitalizations and up to 25,000 flu deaths. Why is no one refusing to go to their hair salon appointment over that? The racial affiliation to the virus electrifies discrimination and segregation towards a particular ethnic group. We can’t repeat history. These same concerns over Chinese disease and hygiene were the same ones that led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
I’m not saying that the coronavirus isn’t something we should be concerned about. There is a sudden outbreak of a disease that is infecting thousands of people rapidly and killing hundreds — that’s pretty concerning. However, there’s a difference between taking necessary precautions like the simple act of washing your hands (delivered by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention themselves) and irrationally discriminating against the Chinese to make yourself feel more “protected.”
History shows that outbreaks like these follow a certain narrative. We saw it in the 1980s with the spread of HIV. The global panic led to discriminatory laws, which to this day, are still held in place in some states. In “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative,” a book written by Duke University English Professor Priscilla Wald, the common narrative at which a new outbreak follows is explained.
First, a new virus is discovered, and the media follows it through each country it reaches. People immediately turn to epidemiologists for prevention and containment advice. Social media sensationalizes the outbreak, leading to an immense fascination with its spread. This global interest advances stigma against minorities associated with the disease, fueling already existent racism and prejudice. People’s involvement in these racist and stigmatizing behaviors, whether intentional or not, adds a sense of comfort as they believe they are helping contain the disease’s spread. All I ask is that you become more understanding, more educated, and more willing to stand up for those discriminated against. If you do so, you won’t be afraid because there is no need to be.