Virus-induced racism does no one any good

Virus-induced racism does no one any good

As the novel coronavirus spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan across the country and to other continents, a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment has surfaced around the world.

Along with the rise in the number of infections and fatalities -- which surpassed 37,000 and 800, respectively, over the weekend -- is an upsurge in fear and hatred towards Chinese people.

Some social media users in the US and Australia mocked the eating habits of some Chinese as "weird" and "dirty", in the belief that the coronavirus may have been passed onto humans through the "bat soup" eaten by locals in Wuhan market despite the lack of evidence backing up the theory.

Such xenophobia has also found a place in Thailand, with some Thais saying Chinese people deserve the outbreak due to their "unhygienic" ways and expressing on social media platforms their fear of both the virus and Chinese tourists.

Many have called for the government to ban the entry of Chinese visitors. However, Thailand and a number of countries have not imposed such a ban to avoid hurting diplomatic relations with China.

This xenophobia is not driven by fear of the disease alone. It is rooted in an old global discourse that paints China as a "barbarian" and a "stranger" during a century of humiliation, from the early 19th to mid-20th century, in which China experienced intervention and imperialism by Western powers and Japan.

This discourse has been retrieved over the past few years as many nations have become anxious over China's rise to become a new superpower.

As the outbreak has developed into a global health crisis, collective efforts are needed by all nations to control the spread of the virus. Fanning the flames of xenophobia, which should not be tolerated under any circumstances, only makes things worse and strokes fear and distrust while isolating China from global disease control.

In fact, the outbreak can't be blamed on Chinese people. It was caused by the Chinese government's failure to contain the infection during the early stage which was a shortcoming of its policy of censorship that delays getting alerts to its people in a timely fashion.

With the fast pace of infection, the Chinese government has faced shortages of medical supplies and health facilities to provide care and treatment for those infected or placed under quarantine.

Amid this xenophobia, governments also need diplomatic and flexible approaches to handle the outbreak.

For example, Japan has donated face masks, goggles and protective suits to China. Singapore, though suspending all new visas to Chinese passport holders, has pledged to provide seed funding, medicine, medical supplies and diagnostic test kits to China's laboratories.

Singaporean leaders have learned from the impact of the global 2002-2003 Sars outbreak which originated in southern China but had a lasting effect on the world's and Singapore's economy.

Similarly, the coronavirus outbreak has already interrupted the global economy, particularly the tourism sector, as China supplies the majority of tourists in many countries.

Several airlines -- including in Hong Kong, Japan, Canada and Thailand -- have reduced the number of flights in and out of China.

The Nikkei Asian Review reported last week that Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airline asked all 27,000 employees to take three-months unpaid leave in the coming months because the company has to cut its mainland China flights.

Thailand's Ministry of Tourism and Sports estimates the country will lose more than 300 billion baht in tourism assuming that the outbreak is fully contained by the end of March.

The longer the outbreak lasts means the greater the economic loss for Thailand -- a destination of nearly 11 million Chinese tourists each year (and who accounted for 27% of inbound tourists last year).

A hotel owner in Phuket, a friend of mine, told me recently that he had few guests during last Chinese New Year last month as the Chinese government had suspended outbound tour operations.

Of course, we need to control the spread of the virus, and it is reasonable to impose strict screening of Chinese tourists.

But that should not stop us from showing compassion and understanding to Chinese people, as a taxi driver, who was the first Thai to contract the coronavirus through close contact with a Chinese tourist, did in a statement issued at a press conference last week.

"I don't feel bad towards Chinese tourists or Chinese people in general," he said.

Anti-Chinese sentiment won't do us any good.

As the virus continues to spread, we need to combat this racism more than ever.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat


Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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