Commentary, Opinion

Coronavirus: A case of viral xenophobia

Any sentence that begins with ‘I don’t want to sound racist but,’ will, in fact, be racist. I have heard this, and many other racist and xenophobic things, daily since the news of the coronavirus began spreading on campus. 

Not many students can claim that they have not come across tweets or memes making light of the virus and those affected in the Wuhan district of China. After overhearing a student expressing disgust toward Chinese students’ dietary patterns, I realized that the conversations around coronavirus were not rooted in its swift spread, but rather in students’ assumption that their peers from East Asia now pose a threat to their safety. Angry tweets and instagram stories spitting derogatory terms about Chinese people can make people think about how quickly safe spaces can become unsafe in today’s world.

The racist discourse about coronavirus stems from the pervasive, historical belief that immigrants pose a health risk by bringing in ‘germs.’ The panic surrounding coronavirus on campus has lead to racial profiling, which is only sensationalised by ludicrous humour. The panic villifies racialized groups on campus and equates non-white difference with danger. The grave impact of misinformed perceptions needs to be understood and such conversations need to stop. 

On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus a global health emergency.  Since the virus spread to over 15,000 people causing 350 deaths, many countries have imposed travel restrictions on travellers from mainland China. Where travel advisories and airport screenings can be compartmentalized as measures pertinent to ensuring the health and safety of people around the world, racist discourse and derogatory memes feed into a bigger problem—sensational xenophobia. 

“The panic surrounding coronavirus on campus has lead to racial profiling, which is only sensationalised by ludicrous humour. The panic villifies racialized groups on campus and equates non-white difference with danger.”

 Thirty per cent of McGill’s student body is comprised of international students, 3171 of whom are from China. Montreal is the sixth best student city in the world, but this does not mean the city is safe for students of colour. Social media outlets have made it easier for unchecked information and myths to result in confirmation bias about certain groups being associated with the virus. One example of this is a video from 2016 which showed a YouTuber eating bat soup, and resurfaced this past week: This video has added to the sensational racism by falsely claimed to be set in Wuhan—the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak

The discourse surrounding coronavirus completely overlooks the socioeconomic context of the outbreak. Like those in many countries around the world, wet markets in China do not follow health and safety regulations, or can face bureaucratic barriers in establishing firm regulatory systems. Sensationalized racism assigns blame that persists across borders and influences global narratives. Such narratives parallel the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 and Ebola in 2014—both of which were plagued with transmission myths and racism.

As we take precautionary measures and race to lay our hands on a coveted pack of surgical masks, which are currently in short supply across Canada, let us find in ourselves the courage to defend anyone who is treated unfairly and give support to anyone whose loved ones are actually highly exposed to the virus. Students can all acknowledge that, at times, they may have been bystanders in racist dialogue. Sometimes, disconcertingly, yet quietly, swiping away at the memes; other times, burying ourselves in our computers when overhearing some people make very problematic remarks; and at others, calling-out people right away when conversations steer towards the origins of the virus. 

Racism is no longer merely an uncomfortable conversation with a xenophobe, it can manifest as a meme retweeted by a member of your group project who thinks enjoying Corona beer is now funny; it is sensationalized jokes about the food one eats because it not a Western dish. People must hold themselves to a higher standard of decency when discussing the coronavirus, or any global epidemic, and hold others accountable as well.


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