Times of crisis and existential threat bring out the best and worst in human behaviour. During epidemics, avoidance and stigmatisation of out-groups are common strategies of collective coping. Anthropological and historical accounts of past epidemics provide plenty of evidence of fear “legitimising” collective discrimination against minorities and other “outsiders”. For instance, during the 1853 yellow fever epidemic in America, Irish and German immigrants were blamed as the cause.
In the 1916 major outbreak of polio in New York City, Italian immigrants were accused of bringing the epidemic to America while the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918 was falsely attributed to Spain.
Over the last two months since the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), the denigration of and blaming of certain groups deemed responsible has already been plain to see.
Shortly after the new coronavirus outbreak in Hubei province was officially declared by Chinese authorities in January, discriminatory rhetoric and attacks against people from the region began to emerge online and in public.
Pictures of banners stigmatising people travelling back home from Hubei went viral on social media.
A widely circulated picture shows a banner in Shanghai with the message “People coming back from Hubei are all time bombs”.
Sensationalist media coverage of the outbreak works to further exacerbate existing fears, including some pandering to xenophobic stereotypes or peddling popular rumours as in the emergence of a video showing “a Chinese woman indulging in the apparently common practice of eating fruit bat soup”.
Although this video has since been debunked, it is still circulated online promoting the narrative that Chinese people deserve their affliction by dint of their “disgusting” eating habits.
Other groups have suggested that the Chinese are suffering retribution because of their persecution of Christians and Muslims.
A more recent example of misinformation fuelling xenophobia is the conspiracy theory claiming the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Italy is caused by Chinese Big Pharma and government who deliberately sent virus carriers to Europe.
Numerous incidents of “coronaracism” have been witnessed in Australia, Europe and the US of people of East Asian appearance being verbally abused, kicked off public transport, denied entrance to shops, spat on and even violently attacked.
In Kenya, a politician was quoted as saying Chinese people should be stoned on sight while elsewhere Chinese people have been harassed and intimidated on fears of coronavirus.
“Less than 0.001 per cent of Chinese people have contracted coronavirus yet more than 99.999 per cent have already experienced coronaracism”. This quote from the British-born Chinese comedian Ken Cheng underlines the pervasive and indiscriminate nature of racism stemming from this outbreak.
Elsewhere, a Chinese band published a video “Wo bushi Bingdu” (I am not a virus) to counter the proliferating propaganda.
The feeling in Kenya of a “Chinese invasion” has been deepened by the threat of coronavirus. As Chinese journalist, April Zhu observes, five years ago, there were only a handful of Chinese restaurants in Nairobi, some Chinese-run casinos and markets, and a dejected “China Centre” that was meant to be doing something diplomatic. Five years ago, there was no standard gauge railway running from Mombasa to Nairobi, built by Chinese contractors who were blacklisted by the World Bank, with loans extended by the Chinese Import-Export Bank and tainted with political graft. There was no Xinhua headquarters. No Chinese children in holiday camps. This is no longer the case.
The narrative of the Chinese takeover is a simple story, and simple stories are the easiest to sell. The Chinese man caning a Kenyan employee melds into frozen Chinese tilapia thawed and sold at Gikomba Market as Lolwe’s fresh catch melds into “Made in China” vitenge melds into the Chinese man caught on video calling Uhuru a monkey melds into the swarms of passengers unloaded into Kenya twice a week by a China Southern Airline. Kenyans feel powerless to stop this perceived invasion of their boundaries.
Geographer Theo Aalders argues that disgust is our body’s evolved reaction to the trespassing of boundaries be they physical or in the case of coronavirus, pathological. In some quarters Kenyans view Chinese presence as a new era of colonisation through the back door.
It is worthy of note that Kenya, which has the largest number of African students in China has said it will not evacuate them, a stand which has been adopted by other African nations with students in China. This has not endeared the government to its citizens, instead reinforcing that feeling of powerlessness.
On a positive note, only one among the African students in China have been infected, so far as is the case generally in the African continent much to the amazement of scientists who are unable to explain the phenomenon, which does not conform to the normal narrative of the continent.
Coronavirus has become a racialised problem everywhere in the world and, Kenya is no exception.
The solution is not Sinophobia but protecting our boundaries at a national level, be they physical, political, economic or social. Once this potentially liberating emotion shifts to an individual level it is projected towards an individual and is reduced to pervasive racism.
As the world is preparing for a pandemic, maybe we should also prepare to combat coronaracism so that we can all fight the virus in solidarity.