Scouting for scapegoats when epidemics strike — must we accept this as logical human behaviour?
Within mainland China, the death toll of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has surged past 2 000 while the number of infections rapidly approaches 75 000 (as of Feb. 18). At this time when fellow comrades are experiencing unspeakable grief, instead of cooperative solidarity, those of us at the receiving end of rising racist sentiments see further isolation.
There are countless ways of defending the scapegoats, many of which are flooding online platforms. For one, the viral video of a woman consuming bat soup was actually filmed in Palau for a travel video in 2016. Next, a Lancet study found that the apparent “source” locale, Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, had no significant connections with the virus. The examples of medical misinformation are countless. It’s definitely important to “get your facts right,” but since when has “scientific rigour” been able to quell human ignorance?
Do we want to wander down the well-trodden path of competing nationalisms? “They eat bats in China, that is so disgusting.” Do you know that they force-feed geese to the point of cirrhosis in order for a mouthful of bourgeoise foie gras — their livers? You mean France. Do you know that they feed dogs cocaine and force them to race one another, then sell the meat of those who fail to perform? You mean Ireland. Do you know that they trap and electrocute wild coyotes before skinning them alive to make trims for ridiculously priced jackets? You mean Canada. Besides, most of the world find the American appetite for disassembled, plastic-wrapped animal parts equally strange. We can play the country role reversal game forever, but nobody wins.
No excuse can justify fatalistic urges to essentialize and simplify the unfamiliar because one is too cowardly to attempt the task of understanding. Ignorant comments arising out of limited geopolitical exposure are typically justified as “just jokes,” but trafficking in causal cruelty emits fatal consequences for your convenient scapegoats. Have we forgotten how the Jews were blamed for the Black Death? Science has never been “just science” when we remember to acknowledge the issue of scientific racism.
“Uncivilized Asians” and their “primitive habits” are often blamed for the disease — the list of such terms goes on. For one thing, “Asian” or “Asian-ness” does not actually exist, but it operates, and is defined without indigenous input. Yet those of us responsible for bargaining with the identitarian conflicts within this category are playing a different kind of game — trying to locate our specificity within that word, “Asian”, is an impossible task. Perhaps “Chinese” can be a position without identity, because by the accident of birth, one becomes a claimant to its name – ethnic, racial, national, you name it.
Since time immemorial, societies worldwide have lived in complex interdependence. The “Wuhan virus,” as a descriptive label, does not make sense unless one genuinely believes that dividing up the land actually cuts out the air in between us. The most prominent aspect of blame is the name a disease acquires.
COVID-19 is not the first outbreak to be racialized. 19th century European fear mongering over “yellow peril” comes to mind, but perhaps the most reminiscent would be the 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak. Neither H1N1, whose origins are associated with pig farms in Mexico and North America, nor mad cow disease, which emerged in British herds after having been fed contaminated cattle feed, generated racial and ethnic backlash of this magnitude.
Instead of considering our universe of microbial threats and personal risk of disease, which emerges from the dynamic interplay between pathogen, immune system, and environment, we zero in on the two peculiar aspects of contagion that are hallmarks of invasion: the foreignness of the germ and the pace and scale of its dispersal. Instead of taking in our world of coexistence and shared vulnerability, which emerges from being born into an era where mobility and interaction across space is unavoidable, we choose to fixate on the two particular aspects of complex interdependence that are the most symptomatic of contamination: the foreignness of the other and the unprecedented speed and scope of their arrival (read: immigration amidst internationalization).
Most woefully, xenophobia extends beyond the “West and the Rest.” An intimate mastery of mobilization of national identity for the citizenry extends to colonies who had formal independence thrown upon them. Do we wonder about the relationship between nationalism and liberal democracy? Not just with regard to so-called “homegrown” states of democratic freedom who unleash monstrosity on Indigenous peoples, racialized communities, and otherwise, but also for those bequeathed with these structures of violence. Responses within some of the worst affected countries, including my home city of Singapore, include selling masks at sky-high prices, racism against mainland Chinese nationals, and blatant discrimination against nurses who put their own health on the line.
Selfish competition motivated by a “survival of the fittest” mindset has displaced chunks of our moral compass. Among countless others, my home situation is the aftermath of industrial capitalist imperialism, negotiated political independence seen as decolonization, passing into neo-colonialism. Armed with the “national,” we were made to wage war within our community such that those not yet born are preordained for this mentality. By now, I hope it is evident that the point of this writing is not about sickness per se.
In our daily lives, many endeavour to disrupt the hard shells of identity in our respective capacities. Somehow we know and recognize one another, although our concrete preoccupations are different. The arenas that one finds accessible are largely determined by what one is born into, alongside foundational exposure to the methods and tools used for political leverage. Some take the streets in vigour alongside allies and maximize public visibility of important struggles. Others hack away at capitalist structures behind closed doors to disrupt the baseline of the(ir) wealthy, almost always as lone mavericks. Political activity does not only occur on the footsteps of government buildings (which is not to deny the importance of symbolic resistance). Capitalists rarely, if ever, make profiteering decisions in public, which is why social justice efforts are coordinated at all scales. Sure, these are not strict boundaries in a fluid landscape of activism, but there are too many such wars to be fought on this planet. Starting from the struggles closest to home and allowing this work to occupy lifelong commitment would be as fulfilling a start as any.
Viral infections know no place and race, so let us furnish moral support from across the oceans. I lack the lived experience of the current pandemonium, but I am representing the voices of several acquaintances who, as mainland Chinese nationals both at home and abroad, are weathering this hurricane. I have only gratitude for their unwavering belief in me, and regret for the always imperfect task of translation. The magnitude of their resilience never fails to astound me. In their words, “Believe love will triumph.”