The Coronavirus: Pandemic Panic and Racism

FDR said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself

Photo credit: Alliance/DPA, C. Min

Reaction to the Novel Coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV across the planet is both unsettling and frightening, signaling as it does the onset of a kind of era of fear that extends beyond the virus to fear of foreigners in general and perhaps fear of the future itself.

In the case of the coronavirus, it appears out of all proportion to the actual damage it has inflicted, with – at the latest report – 17,500 people recorded as sickened in China over seven weeks and 305 dead, mostly in Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million people. The fatality rate currently is just 2 percent. By one estimate, the normal flu season in Hong Kong killed 356 territory residents in the first three months of 2019 without any particular panic. 

Nonetheless, the virus seems to be spreading with astonishing speed, to at least 23 countries since it was discovered, and is difficult to track because of its long incubation period, up to 14 days, before it becomes apparent. The Lee Ka Shing School of Medicine at Hong Kong University estimates that more than 75,000 people may have been infected in Wuhan, despite the official figures, by January 25 – eight days ago.  

The psychological contagion is equally astonishing. Against the advice of health officials, country after country has closed its borders to visitors from China, or particularly from Hebei, whose capital Wuhan, where the virus originated. They include Singapore, the United States, Australia, Japan, Pakistan and Italy, with more almost certain to follow. 

Call it pandemic panic, and there is a major element of racism to it, aimed, for instance, at Chinese citizens who have lived in Italy for generations, or other Asians, and apparently impelling the xenophobic US President Donald Trump to take the opportunity to add six countries – Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Tanzania, Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan – “shithole countries” all, as he calls them – to the seven others on his restricted travel list. None of them has recorded a single case of the virus.

A popular noodle restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand, posted signs in Thai, Chinese and English saying they weren’t serving Chinese customers, then was forced by police to post an apology. They also said they would ban other foreigners.

One colleague, temporarily in Germany with his Korean wife, said she faces sudden racial discrimination over the fact Germans have mistaken members of the country’s Korean community for Chinese. They keep their distance from them in supermarket queues and Korean children are being called ‘bat eaters” by their classmates, a reference to the belief that the virus originated in Wuhan markets selling animals bitten by infected bats. One cashier in an Aldi supermarket, he said, explained cashiers had been ordered to use disinfectant spray on banknotes tendered by Chinese. 

One Korean woman, he said, had taken to donning a hijab on the theory it was better in Germany to be taken for a Muslim rather than an Asian, and particularly a Chinese. In Sydney, according to the Daily Mail, bystanders refused to give CPR to a 60-year-old Chinese heart attack victim out of fear he had been stricken by the virus. Paramedics, according to the story, were too late to save him. 

In a shopping mall in Dasmarinas, south of Manila – a city which recorded the first death from the coronavirus outside of China on Feb. 1 – a good 80 percent of shoppers wore facemasks or occasionally wrapped tee-shirts around their faces in a recent visit. A report that a cruise ship carrying 1000 Chinese passengers had docked in Subic Bay caused panic across all of the country’s radio dials before the report was downgraded and corrected to note that all the passengers had been examined by medical personnel before they landed and Wuhan ones had been screened.

Scenes like this are undoubtedly being acted out across the planet. But the fact is that there is another dynamic at work here, driven by an increasingly overburdened earth with too many people on it, and particularly too many on the move. China exemplifies this, newly rich, often far too arrogant and uneducated about the cultural mores of the countries they are visiting. They inflicted 150 million tourists on the world in 2019 – the leading source of tourism in an astonishing 200 countries, according to the China Daily, with as many as 200 million expected overseas in a couple of years – or were until the astonishing impact of the virus. 

Hong Kong, which has borne the brunt of the arrivals, saw an overwhelming 51 million Chinese visiting the city, population 7.5 million, in 2018 before seven months of protest over Beijing’s attempts at extending political control over the territory cut their numbers substantially in 2019. They are mainly reviled by the overwhelmed locals. The virus is making them reviled even more, along with the equally despised government, which appears to be mishandling the crisis. 

As Hong Kong-based financial sector gadfly David Webb put it in his trenchant blog, Webb-site Reports, “…the HK Government has put the city into unprecedented levels of lockdown that are entirely inconsistent with keeping the border so open. It's either an emergency or it isn't. Schools which were due to reopen after Chinese New Year on Monday (3-Feb) will not now open until at least 2 March. Museums, sports facilities, HK Disneyland and Ocean Park are all closed. Non-essential Government workers have been ordered to "work" from home and many public-facing services have been shut down. Even during SARS, such measures were milder. All of the burden of reducing transmission of the virus is being placed on HK residents, without protecting them by barring non-Hubei visitors from the mainland.”

 According to the United Nations, in 2017 there were 258 million international migrants worldwide. Although they represent a very small proportion of the world’s population, approximately 3.4 percent, their numbers are rising, and almost all of them come from poor countries and they are trying to get into rich countries that don’t want them there. Nearly two-thirds of them are labor migrants. The number of international migrants thus already is surpassing some projections made for the year 2050, expected at 230 million. 

Some 65.6 million of them are political refugees –people forcibly displaced worldwide because of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

Obviously despite a feverish international effort in the medical profession to come up with answers to the questions over the virus and its mortality rate, not enough is known about it to gauge whether it is a deadly as the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic, which took the lives of 50 million people in a time when medical care was not nearly as effective as it is now, or the Asian flu epidemic of 1957, which killed between 1 and 4 million. But pandemic panic, driven by concerns about an overburdened earth, inundation by refugees and flat racism, has to be considered a part of it.