We’ve been down this road before, too many times. In the 14th century the Black Death provoked mass violence against Jews, Catalans, clerics and beggars; when syphilis spread in the 15th century, it was called variously the Neapolitan, French, Polish and German disease, depending on who was pointing the blame; when the plague struck Honolulu in 1899, officials burned down Chinatown. And so on, down to our times, when epidemics like Ebola, SARS and Zika fueled animus toward specific regions or peoples.
Here we are in 2020, with Asians being assailed across the United States and around the world as purported sources of the “Chinese flu,” the “Wuhan coronavirus” or simply the “foreign virus.” Once again, a mysterious, fast-spreading and sometimes lethal disease is exacerbating racism and hatred — only now with the help of the potent megaphone of social media.
As the coronavirus has spread from its beachhead in Wuhan, China, old anti-Asian prejudices have spread with it, from the “Yellow Peril” canard that led to the lynching of Chinese in the 1870s to stereotypes of Chinese as dirty and decrepit.
As The Times reported on Monday, Chinese-Americans and other Asians lumped together with them by racists are being beaten, spat on, yelled at and insulted from coast to coast, driving some members of the maligned minority to purchase firearms in the fear of worse to come as the pandemic deepens.
The United States is not alone in this blight of xenophobia. Japan’s Kyodo News agency described similar incidents of anti-Asian bigotry wherever the coronavirus has struck: Asian students pelted with eggs in Leicestershire, England, or people in Egypt yelling out “corona” when passing Asians in the street. Vile posts on social media have made graphic threats in rants against Asians over the coronavirus.
However, much mystery still surrounds the coronavirus, these are not the Dark Ages, and there really should be no reason to remind people that this terrible new virus makes no distinction among races or nations. Though it makes good medical sense to keep a distance from people who have been to an area with a high rate of infection — which today is effectively anywhere — it is foolish and malicious to hold the Chinese (or any other) people responsible for the spread of the virus, or to assume that they are somehow more likely to be its carriers.
A time of great fear and danger requires solidarity, humanity, sacrifice and hope, and not hysteria or hatred. That should be the message of the world’s political, social, religious and corporate leaders as they race to find ways to cope with the lethal virus. Many leaders have done just that.
It is more than unfortunate, then, that President Trump, some members of his cabinet and some conservative politicians have opted to fan the bigotry by deliberately using the term “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus.” Mr. Trump, who spent previous months calling it the coronavirus, started defending the use of “Chinese virus” last week. Photographs of a text of the speech he was reading seemed to show “Corona” lined out and “Chinese” written in the president’s hand. Mr. Trump tweeted support of the Asian-American community on Monday, but his many supporters online had already embraced his formulation.
In tying the virus to China, the president also has adopted the argument of Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, that referring to Wuhan or China is payback for Chinese disinformation and for Beijing’s delay in letting the world know of the outbreak. Of course, it is possible to hold the Chinese government accountable for its handling of the crisis and its spread of misinformation without maligning a nation of more than 1.3 billion people or the people of Chinese descent who make their homes in nations around the world.
The xenophobia and prejudices that result from naming new infectious diseases after places, people or animals are the reasons the World Health Organization has urged against doing so, and instead using generic descriptive terms like “coronavirus.” Names like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish flu, swine flu or monkey pox, the W.H.O. said, can have serious consequences, whether provoking a backlash against members of a particular community or prompting needless slaughter of food animals.
In the end, though, the anti-Asian hatreds spread by the coronavirus are not solely the product of politics, but of the deep fears that have always accompanied the outbreak of lethal pathogens. It is for all Americans to try, in whatever ways they can, to remain united and compassionate as the disease invades all facets of our lives. — The New York Times.