A Dire Outbreak: The Coronavirus and Racial Prejudice

Written by Raya Chehabeddine

Edited by Laurence Campanella

Arek Rataj/AP.

Despite the celebrations of the Chinese New Year, the world is not immune to a Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. The prospect is daunting, but the fear is ubiquitous. 

Amid the humanitarian crisis in Wuhan, the epicenter of the deadly outbreak, Chinese authorities are desperately resorting to extreme measures.[i] In an effort to contain the spread of the disease, officials enforced an unprecedented quarantine of nearly 11 million citizens. Orders of house-to-house searches have been implemented and an emergency hospital was built in just ten days to tackle the outbreak. Despite the measures taken to contain the spread of this deadly disease, the number of infected cases has soared from 50 in China, to over 31,535 in more than 20 countries in the past three weeks.[ii] The death toll is even more alarming, amounting to 638.

The distressing evidence of transmission through contact and the risk of spread across borders sparked the concern of the World Health Organization. On January 30th, 2020, the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a global public health emergency, making it the sixth disease to take on this designation.[iii] Following the declaration, WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed that “[their] greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it.” The declaration is essential as it calls for a global response that would authorize the essential resource allocation.

Silenced truth

The Chinese government’s initial transparency regarding the outbreak of the virus was only superficial. China’s battle with the Wuhan coronavirus started in early December and was originally constrained by internet and media censorship.[iv] The Chinese authorities faced intense scrutiny after they were accused of failing to respect the human rights of their citizens in the midst of such a health emergency. The response to the disease’s spread was consequently delayed as officials were downplaying the severity of the outbreak and its risk to the public. According to the Human Rights Watch, the police were “withholding information from the public, underreporting cases of infection, downplaying the severity of the infection, and dismissing the likelihood of transmission between humans.”[v] The true cost of the virus’s cover-up is yet to be determined, however, the WHO confirmed that the spread of the disease could have potentially been limited to China had the government responded earlier.     

A swell of resentment took over social media this week following the death of Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan[vi]. The doctor was deemed a national hero after being the first one to sound the alarm about the spread of the SARS-like disease on December 30th. Three days later, Wenliang and seven other doctors were reprimanded by officials. The police forced them to sign a document to stop all rumor-mongering activities. On February 6th, Wenliang died of the virus, leading to a massive online outpouring of grief, as well as growing mistrust of the Chinese government. The death of the ‘whistleblower doctor’ further drove public demand for action with the trending hashtags “Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech.” Nonetheless, both hashtags have reportedly been censored and criticism has been silenced.[vii]

A racialized disease

The ominous threat of a Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic fueled a pervasive panic. The escalating fear unveiled unjustifiable discrimination and prejudice against people of Asian descent.[viii] Instances of verbal harassment in the streets as well as the spread of false rumors have been reported around the world. John Pomfret, a reporter for the Washington Post spoke out about the hostility toward East Asian people, detailing that “at a middle school a few blocks from [his] house, a rumor circulated among the children that all Asian kids have the coronavirus and should be quarantined.”

Moreover, Chinese restaurants are victims of false warnings stating that their meals harbor the disease, forcing them to close down their businesses.[ix] The severity of this wave of discrimination was highlighted in a since-deleted Instagram post from the University of California Berkley that clearly stated that Xenophobia is a “normal” and “common” reaction during this time. The post unleashed a wave of anger online, being accused of contributing to the normalization of racism. Pop culture is at the center of the emergence of racist statements portraying Asian people as unclean, uncivilized and a threat to society. 

The spread of the coronavirus virus triggered a sentiment deeply embedded in Western culture: the fear of others. Neither the H1N1 virus that started in North America nor the mad cow disease which affected primarily the United Kingdom led to racist responses of this amplitude. Many public health authorities around the world have spoken out regarding this issue, attempting to curtail the strands of discrimination, however, these this may only be the start of public hysteria.[x]


[i] Qin, Amy, Steven Lee Myers, and Elaine Yu. “China Tightens Wuhan Lockdown in ‘Wartime’ Battle With Coronavirus.” The New York Times, February 6, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/world/asia/coronavirus-china-wuhan-quarantine.html

[ii] “Coronavirus Cases:” Worldometer. Accessed February 7, 2020. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

[iii] Statement on the Second Meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee Regarding the Outbreak of Novel Coronavirus (2019-NCoV).” World Health Organization. World Health Organization. Accessed February 7, 2020. https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/30-01-2020-statement-on-the-second-meeting-of-the-international-health-regulations-(2005)-emergency-committee-regarding-the-outbreak-of-novel-coronavirus-(2019-ncov)

[iv] “China: Respect Rights in Coronavirus Response.” Human Rights Watch, January 30, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/01/30/china-respect-rights-coronavirus-response

[v] “China: Respect Rights in Coronavirus Response.” Human Rights Watch, January 30, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/01/30/china-respect-rights-coronavirus-response

[vi] Xiong, Yong, Hande Atay Alam, and Nectar Gan. “Chinese Doctor Who Sounded the Alarm on Coronavirus Dies.” CNN. Cable News Network, February 6, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/06/asia/li-wenliang-coronavirus-whistleblower-doctor-dies-intl/index.html

[vii] Xiong, Yong, Hande Atay Alam, and Nectar Gan. “Chinese Doctor Who Sounded the Alarm on Coronavirus Dies.” CNN. Cable News Network, February 6, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/06/asia/li-wenliang-coronavirus-whistleblower-doctor-dies-intl/index.html

[viii] Cummins, Eleanor. “The New Coronavirus Is Not an Excuse to Be Racist.” The Verge. The Verge, February 4, 2020. https://www.theverge.com/2020/2/4/21121358/coronavirus-racism-social-media-east-asian-chinese-xenophobia

[ix] Wang, Sheila. “Business down at Wuhan Noodle Restaurant in Markham amid Racism, Coronavirus Fear.” thestar.com, January 31, 2020. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/01/31/wuhan-noodle-restaurant-in-markham-experiences-racism-amid-coronavirus-fear.html

[x] Yeung, Jessie. “As the Coronavirus Spreads, Fear Is Fueling Racism and Xenophobia.” CNN. Cable News Network, January 31, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/31/asia/wuhan-coronavirus-racism-fear-intl-hnk/index.html

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