History & Culture / Asia Wide

Anti-Asianness in the era of COVID-19: Is racism a symptom of pandemics?

by Zafirah Mohamed Zein
Length 10 min

COVID-19 recognises neither borders nor colour. Yet Asians have been ridiculed, shunned, and attacked as the deadly virus continues to incite fear and upend lives worldwide. In the United States, incidents of anti-Asian harassment surged after President Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”. The World Health Organisation warned against using this term, to avoid stigmatising a particular race or ethnicity.

But this is not the first time a pandemic has caused racism against Asian Americans and other minorities to rear its ugly head. Think about SARS, Ebola, the bubonic plague—when deadly diseases spread, an epidemic of hate towards marginalised groups usually follows in its trail. Why?

On 26 April, someone threw a big rock through a window of an ostensibly Chinese home.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” said the person who reported the incident to the Los Angeles–based Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON)’s Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center, which received 1843 reports of anti-Asian discrimination across the United States from mid-March to mid-May.

Other reports include getting called “chink”, “monkey”, and “Chinaman”, being accused of having the “Chinese virus”, and being yelled at to go back to one’s country—a well-worn racist trope used by the Trump administration against other minority groups in the United States.

Observers and advocacy groups say the rise in Sinophobia is linked to racist dog whistling and fearmongering by government officials who were quick to call for bans on Chinese travelers and who mistakenly cited China as the source of other disease outbreaks.

In March 2020, a Republican senator publicly said that “China is to blame” for the coronavirus “because of a culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that”. A White House official openly referred to the virus as “Kung Flu” while speaking to an Asian American reporter.

Such rhetoric has translated to anti-Chinese prejudice both online and offline. According to Israeli artificial- intelligence startup L1ght, there was a 900 percent uptick in hate speech on Twitter directed at China and the Chinese from December 2019 to August 2020, at the time of this writing. Popular hashtags during this period targeted China as the cause of the coronavirus: #chinaliedpeopledied, #Kungflu, #communistvirus, and #wuhanvirus.

In real life, Chinese businesses have taken a hit as fears of infection keep customers away, even as racist profiling has made anyone with an Asian appearance a potential target of attack.


Depicting the East as the exotic Other

Scapegoating a particular race or ethnicity fuels existing prejudices. In the case of Chinese and other Asian Americans in the United States, this harks back to old racist notions of Asians as uncivilised and barbaric. As COVID-19 spreads beyond Asia, so too did images of Chinese people eating insects, bats, and dogs. China’s wildlife markets and consumption of exotic animals came under international fire, as initial reports traced the virus back to a wet market in Wuhan, although this claim has since been challenged.

At the onset of the outbreak, sensationalist media coverage, particularly in the West, inflamed existing fears and encouraged xenophobia by painting China as the source of the disease. Following the narrative of the exotic Asian, news and social media helped peddle popular rumours that linked the virus to Chinese diets.

In one widely publicised case, a Chinese travel blogger was forced to apologise after a video of her eating bat soup surfaced online, even though bat soup has no direct connection to COVID-19 and the video had been filmed four years ago in Palau, an island country in the Pacific.

Reporter Julia Carrie observes, in an opinion piece for the Guardian, that the travel blogger’s case served to further “a narrative that appealed to a Western audience’s racist fascination with Chinese appetites”. The notion that eating some animals is acceptable whereas eating others is not underlies the myths and assumptions circulating around Chinese diets and practices.


Western hegemony: Asia simplified

Such views are often rooted in beliefs of one’s own cultural hegemony, which leads to unfair judgment towards other cultures. In the West and other more urbanised societies, people are used to consuming shrink-wrapped, nicely packaged animal parts in supermarkets. Certain foods—such as crab, lobster, and delicacies such as snails—are eaten fresh, but these remain sought-after luxuries and do not receive the same scrutiny as other types of food.

Meanwhile, buying freshly slaughtered animals at a wet market—which the media often mistakes for wildlife markets—is seen as strange and unsettling, even though not too long ago many people across cultures got their meat fresh off the chopping block.

Anti-Asianness in the era of COVID-19: Is racism a symptom of pandemics?

Freshly slaughtered animals for sale at a supermarket in Guangzhou, July 2019. Image: Architect Chin/Shutterstock

Indeed, nuanced commentary on the issue has reminded the public that eating wild or exotic animals is, in fact, a cultural outlier in China. Wild animal consumption is a complex practice that differs from region to region and is largely attached to wealth and status. Only the rich can afford palm civet soup, fried cobra, and braised bear paw, for example, whereas frogs are a common and inexpensive dish.

Separately, wild animals are also consumed in traditional Chinese medicine, which remains a driver of the illegal wildlife trade—although stronger efforts have recently been made to protect critically endangered species such as the pangolin. Older Chinese are also more likely to buy live wild animals than the younger generation, which has been more exposed to the Western consumption model of processed, store-bought foods.

Fundamentally, cultural habits that do not conform to mainstream—primarily Western—culture are perceived as primitive and barbaric rather than understood with nuance. When these beliefs are brought to the surface during a global health crisis, people from those cultures are further stereotyped as dirty or carriers of disease.


Associating immigrants with disease 

Framing Asians as uncivilised and barbaric is not new in countries such as the United States, where Chinese immigrants have long been depicted as threats to the country’s moral fabric and excluded on the basis of race. In 1882, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in a bid to halt Chinese immigration and prevent those already in the country from obtaining citizenship.

According to law professor Frank H. Wu, Asians, especially the Chinese, have a history of being seen as dirty and sources of contagion—a characterisation that has been used time and time again to justify further exclusion of and discrimination against the Asian American population.

Chinese and Japanese immigrants were stigmatised and targeted for examination when they became associated with the bubonic plague, which first reached U.S. shores in 1899. Colonial health officials used to refer to Filipino bodies as “incubators of leprosy” during U.S. rule over the Philippines. During the colonial era, upper-class Europeans in the Asian colonies were also perceived to be racially superior, as most had been spared from the plague. This perceived racial purity granted them free passage from plague-hit areas where others were restricted from travelling.

The association between race and disease is a key part of immigration and segregation policy. In many places, contagion control practices such as quarantines, travel bans, and social distancing have been used to stigmatise and segregate racial communities associated with disease. Such policies are but part of a long history of stigmatising certain countries or population groups when a major disease crosses international borders.

In the late 19th century in New York, immigrant communities such as the Italians, Jews, Mexicans, and several others from countries in Africa were linked to contagious diseases and bore the brunt of racial profiling. Officials attempted to limit the arrival of newcomers and carve out public spaces along racial lines.

This echoes what is happening today with the COVID-19 pandemic, even within Asia. In Malaysia, migrants and refugees have been rounded up and sent to detention centres to contain the outbreak, while African communities in China face forced testing and evictions.


COVID-19 has laid bare our ideas of race 

Distorted ideas of race have been interwoven in Western discourses of public health for a long time, revealing preconceived notions of what disease carriers look like, which borders should be opened to whom, and, more starkly, who the outsiders of any given society are.

Indeed, the rise in anti-Asian racism during COVID-19 coincides with growing xenophobia and nativism in the United States and beyond. In many countries, including many across Asia, the virus has unveiled existing racisms, particularly when the crisis is used to justify the discriminatory treatment of certain groups.

In Malaysia, there has been an surge in online hate speech towards migrants, particularly Rohingya refugees, who are associated with being dangerous and dirty. With the perceived threat of the Rohingya presence magnified by fear and misinformation around COVID-19, citizens have called for the expulsion of refugees. There have been raids and mass arrests of undocumented migrants during Malaysia’s Movement Control Order.

In India, Muslims are scapegoated during the pandemic, as Hindu nationalists use social and mainstream media to incite further hatred against this minority community. Discriminatory treatment of Muslims, which includes turning them away from hospitals, comes months after a controversial citizenship bill sparked deadly riots and aggravated animosity between Hindus and Muslims. 

According to Human Rights Watch, politicians around the world have used the COVID-19 crisis to further “anti-immigrant, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic conspiracy theories” that demonise those at the margins of society, such as foreign workers, refugees, and ethnic minorities.

Where race has been used as an organising principle to explain domestic problems with, fear and insecurity during a global health crisis have led to heightened fear of those seen as foreign. This ultimately undermines joint efforts to beat the pandemic and distracts governments from fixing the social and economic conditions that give rise to disease.

As the world grapples with containing and curing the virus, human civilisation faces the even greater task of eradicating the racism that continues to plague our societies. As Tedro Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), recently said, “Stigma is more dangerous than the [corona]virus itself”.

Will a united response against COVID-19 be the antidote?