There is significant alarm and panic about the Coronavirus that scientists have deemed to have originated in a Wuhan Market, in China, with information about its spread dominating the news cycle. Yet, already this flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA estimates that more than 15 million people in the U.S. have gotten sick with flu and more than 150,000 Americans have been hospitalized, and more than 8,000 people have died from their infection, so tells NPR. Apparently, it’s not even a bad year for flu.
Why are flu-based deaths in the US absent from the news cycle, with no one shutting down flights incoming from JFK, while Coronavirus in China is such a hot topic? We think it has a lot to do with racism.
Anti-Chinese racism in ‘the West’ has historically been rooted in ideas of the Chinese as ‘dirty’ and ‘uncivilised’. A 1854 New York Daily Tribune article called Chinese people “uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception”. The ways in which Chinese people are being narrated right now, in particular for their food choices, shows that very little has in fact changed. And yet we forget that what’s deemed ‘normal’ to eat, is entirely culturally defined. Eating camel, as is popular in Saudi Arabia is no more ‘weird’ than the idea of sweetbreads, here in the UK, which is the name for cooked thymus gland and pancreas.
Seeing Chinese people (or anyone who ‘looks Chinese’, which is also rooted in racist notions of Asian homogeneity) as inherently diseased is demonisation at its purest and it’s being lived out in dangerous ways. 9,000 parents in York school district, north of Toronto, Canada signed a petition for anyone who had visited China in the last 17 days to be prevented from attending school. One petition signer said: “Stop the spread and quarantine yourselves or go back.”. Chinatown in London, is unusually quiet as people are responding to news by not eating there. As always with racist narratives, individuality is foreclosed to certain people – instead they are conceptualised as homogenous, uniform groups.
All the while, people are still driving in their cars, where they have far higher chances of ending up hospitalised in a road accident.
As we see time and again, racism is routinely justified by the ‘fears’ of the group engaging in the racism, no matter how illusory the explanation. And it’s always prioritised over the real fears that many people of Chinese heritage may be feeling right now walking down the street, on transport, too worried to blow their nose, as their humanity is stripped from them by onlookers.
Solidarity demands resisting these racist narratives: so pass along a fact about US flu rates to a friend or colleague today, remind people about sweetbreads and take on a tough conversation with those invested in anything other than facts.