Sunday, June 16, 2024

Kung Flu Virus, Sinophobia, Pandemic of Racism: Implications for Public Health

In December 2019, a new type of coronavirus known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was first identified in Wuhan, China. In a matter of weeks, it quickly spread across the Asian region and, soon after, to the rest of the world.

The suspected origin of SARS-CoV-2 (the agent leading to the disease known as COVID-19) in Wuhan’s “wet markets” immediately cemented the worldwide association between the virus and China, because these markets known for the sale of game animals are popularly deemed as ideal breeding grounds for infectious diseases, (HE J et al, 2020) argued. Stigma thereafter became an entrenched feature of the COVID-19 pandemic, one that revealed the power of semantics in framing particular groups as alleged vectors of contagion.

With time, the outbreak led to a wave of worry and fear that fuelled a worldwide spread of discriminatory public discourses against East Asians (particularly Chinese citizens) and eventually Asian immigrants and Asian Americans in the United States, (Li W et al, 2020). In the USA President Donald Trump and his administration played a crucial role in inflaming xenophobia and racist stigma, which have largely affected Asian American groups along with other racial/ethnic minorities in the United States and around the world.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our lives in unprecedented ways. In the face of the projected catastrophic consequences, scholars and researchers have taken note of these developments where countries have had to enact social distancing measures in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. Under these conditions, the web has become an indispensable medium for information acquisition, communication, and entertainment. At the same time unfortunately, the web is being exploited for the dissemination of potentially harmful and disturbing content, such as the spread of conspiracy theories and hateful speech towards specific ethnic groups, in particular towards Chinese people since Covid-19 is believed to have originated from China, it has been argued by scholars.

Labelling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” has become an effective tool to instil both explicit and implicit prejudices against Asians, it has been argued by (Mc Luhan et al, 1989).  The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that discriminatory labels not just travellers make the world “a global village,” to use McLuhan and Powers’ celebrated term. Almost 14 months into the COVID-19 outbreak, it seems that Sinophobia has also gone viral.

This piece examines the emergence of Sinophobic behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent research undertaken by some scholars on examining different datasets on Sinophobia showed an explosive evolution and emergence of new sinophobic slurs. The recent literature on stigma that addresses the overspread association among the COVID-19 pandemic and racial ethnic groups assumed to be the source of the virus. The labelling of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” that along with a number of other terms such as “Kung Flu Virus” has fuelled race-based stigma against Asian groups globally.

In addressing the WHO press conference on the 2nd March 2020, Tedros A. Ghebreyesus, PhD, World Health Organization Director General is quoted as having said:

“There is a common enemy on this planet itself where we need to fight in unison. Let’s really underline that. Stigma is the most dangerous enemy. For me, it’s more than the virus itself “.

Stigma, as a specific function of labelling phenomena, has historically been associated with infectious diseases that presumably originated in, and were transmitted by, particular populations and regions, (Link BG et al, 2001). For example, the H1N1 global influenza infection of 1918, the deadliest pandemic in history up to now which killed roughly 40 million people  was widely known as the Spanish flu, (Barro RJ, et al, 2020). Despite the fact that the outbreak might have had originated in France, Germany, or even the United States, it was never linked to any of these developed countries. More recently, HIV, which led to a worldwide outbreak in the 1980s, was initially known as the gay-related immune deficiency. Soon afterward, it became known as the “4-Hs,” an acronym that brought together 4 groups that were stigmatized as HIV carriers at the time: haemophiliacs, heroin users, homosexuals, and Haitians, (Markel H et al 2020) submitted.

In Botswana HIV according to (Sharma & Seleke, 2008, Allen & Heald, 2004), HIV/AIDS was a topic shrouded in stigma and silence at all levels of society.  Many people in Botswana were offended by the campaigns on sex education and AIDS, there was also little understanding and awareness of what was happening, Sharma and Seleke argued. The ABC campaign – Abstain, be Faithful, Condomise led to AIDS be known as the Radio disease. There was also a lot of stigma attached to the disease and in some instance aspects of denialism.

According to many scholars, the number of reported xenophobia related incidents increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the 1st of February 2020, the national Dutch news network reported a number of cases of discriminatory language towards people with Chinese and Western-Asian appearance in connection with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus (NOS, 2020). A week later, the name calling took on more serious forms when a student flat was vandalised, and walls were defaced with the lines: “Die Chinese” and “Chinese Corona” (Rutten, 2020). More violent acts were report when a 65-year-old Dutch man of Chinese descent was kicked off his bicycle in Amsterdam by two young men on a scooter, (Quekel, 2020). Such violent attacks escalated in Italy when a Dutch student of Chinese descent was assaulted by a group of students in her dormitory in Tilburg, suffering a concussion and knife wounds, after she asked them to stop singing a racist carnival song about China and COVID-19, (RTL Nieuws, 2020).

In recent months, terms such as “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese virus pandemonium” quickly grew to include diverse Asian groups, from agricultural workers to students, all of whom became the consistent target of derogatory language in worldwide social media platforms.19In the United States, the pervasive xenophobic tenets of the Trump administration soon propelled the racist stigmatization of ethnic and racial minorities, both at home and abroad. Global anxiety about the virus’s modes and rates of contagion found a scapegoat in travellers from East Asian countries that were negatively portrayed in the Western media everywhere, from Denmark to Australia, (Baing et al 2020).  Hashtags such as “#chinesedon’tcometojapan” trended on Twitter with Chinese tourists being called “dirty” and “insensitive.”

Scholars also indicated that in countries with large immigration flows from East Asia, Sinophobia or hate-based stigma against Asian population extended to anyone having Asian features regardless of culture, language, or geographical origin. Meanwhile, fear of the unknown, particularly with respect to the source and trajectory of the infection, has fuelled the xenophobic imagination of much of the world.

Much of the recent COVID-19–related Sinophobic discourse has been fuelled by nativist narratives against the “other” in both the developed and developing worlds, (Renny TT et al, 2020).  As in the past, racist stigma is being powered by a rhetoric aimed at eliciting emotional reactions against immigrants, along with the blaming of foreign countries and their citizens for infectious conditions, (Renny TT, et al 2020).  In doing so, governing parties and politicians hope to increase their political success by promising draconian measures aimed at keeping foreign intruders out, while misleading the public about the effective measures to control the pandemic, (Renny TT et al, 2020 & Banulesgo – Bogdann et al, 2020).  In the United States, the Trump administration took the lead in coining and publicly utilizing expressions that negatively labelled the Chinese and Asian diaspora.

President Trump’s use of expressions such as “Kung Flu” and the “Chinese plague” for COVID-19, along with his choice of terms labelling unauthorized Latin American immigrants as “bad hombres,” “drug smugglers,” and “rapists” who allegedly bring “tremendous infectious disease” to the country, contributed to reinforcing racist stigma. Furthermore, President Trump’s suspicion that the virus was the intentional outcome of experiments carried out by Chinese laboratories was quickly added to the long list of unfounded conspiracy theories on the issue, (Cohen J et al, 2020).

In conclusion it is worth noting that the discriminatory attitudes and practices towards Asians within a public health context is not a new phenomenon. In her book, “Fit to be Citizens”, Natalia Molina describes: “By the 1870, public health officials had sufficient credibility to construct what being Chinese meant, namely, dirty, depraved, and disease ridden. These stereotypes segregating Chinese people so that they would not taint “White city residents, (Molina, 2006). These grotesque stereotypes and racist views continued to be reflected contemporarily through covert misinformation. The spectre of the “Yellow Peril” continues today as French newspapers declared “Alerte Jaune” (Yellow Alert) in response to Covid-19, Thiessen, 2020 noted. These mainstream headlines are reflective of a societal tolerance of bigotry and discrimination towards racial and ethnic minorities poses additional public health risks.

Even though certain diseases have been named after geographical areas in the past, the World Health Organisation now explicitly prohibits it to avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups, (WHO,2015).

Thabo Lucas Seleke is a Researcher & Scholar, Global Health Policy (LSHTM)


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