These days, conversations around me are densely patterned with talk of the novel coronavirus, which has recently been recognized by the World Health Organization as a pandemic. I was prompted to remind myself of my privilege, of important hygiene habits, and of how much love I hold for my loved ones (especially in this quarantine period).
Nonetheless, processing the inhumanity people have manifested all over the globe since the first light of the outbreak has been a challenge. The instinctive need for the west to racialize the virus has kept up some aberrant ideologies of ‘Yellow Peril’. The term is strongly associated with trauma found within Chinese history in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is most often associated with the suffering which occurred during the Opium War, and with German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II who established the dogma of the supposed danger that East Asians pose on the soi-disant ‘civilized’ western world (a commentator on Fox News actually used the same rhetoric to differentiate the United States from China just recently). ‘Yellow Peril’ is also a disparaging reference to the frail physical state of many in China during its time of extreme poverty. This kind of ignorance and xenophobia has unfortunately been stoked by the outbreak under different forms.
Spread of Misinformation
The immediacy of online news has allowed for the unverified spread of presumptuous rumors. Perhaps the most highlighted and debunked gossip so far has been one which blamed the spread of the coronavirus on a speculated Chinese consumption of bats. Soon after the outbreak, videos of Asian people eating or selling bats were shared online on various accounts with captions affirming that the animal is a common delicacy in China. It has quickly been found that the videos were either filmed outside of China or in unverified locations. Even so, many of the videos had already gone viral by then and the accounts had successfully misled many.
Bat soup is a traditional meal in some areas of Micronesia such as Palau, which is also a popular vacation spot for Chinese tourists. Although it has been explained in the New England Journal of Medicine that the virus most likely originated in bats which “[infected] unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets”, it is still unclear how exactly the infection jumped onto humans.
While consuming bat meat isn’t a Chinese tradition, the dish was utilized in order to perpetuate the ideology that Asian cultures are insanitary, which is another layer of antipathy that shouldn’t be ignored. These videos weren’t circulated to provide beneficial information; they were used to sustain specific beliefs — the same kinds that have, for centuries, viewed the Chinese as dirty and uncivilized. Other myths have since emerged, such as the assertion that the virus itself was planned.
Coronavirus misinformation also includes false health advice which, despite its generally good intentions, may cause a great deal of harm. There has been a myriad of unevidenced and downright false assertions, which include claims that children cannot get infected, and that a runny nose isn’t a possible symptom.
The outbreak has also given an excuse for racists to act against East and Southeast Asians. Jonathan Mok, a 23-year-old Singaporean man’s case, stands amongst some of the most violent ones that have been officially reported so far. He was attacked in London just last month by a group of four teenage boys, who told him “[they] don’t want his corona in [their] country”. Mok has since spoken out on Facebook and posted photos of his facial injuries. Two of the attackers have been arrested, while two others still haven’t been identified.
But discriminatory behavior has also (and mostly) manifested itself in more subtle ways: stories of Asians facing prejudice in their daily lives (especially on public transportation) have become commonplace. On March 4th, a story emerged of a Vietnamese art curator named An Nguyen, who was dropped as an assistant for the Affordable Art Fair (AAF) in the U.K. She was told by Raquelle Azran, a dealer and curator who specializes in contemporary Vietnamese fine art, that “the coronavirus is causing much anxiety everywhere, and fairly or not, Asians are being seen as carriers of the virus.” The AAF has since canceled the fair and requested a full retraction and apology from Azran. Nguyen has spoken publicly about the situation, saying:
“It is the systematic structure of knowledge production that informs some of us that normalising non-aggressive discrimination is acceptable, which needs to change.”
Asian businesses have taken a severe toll since the outbreak as a result of the spread of misinformation. Examples include Sunset Park in Brooklyn, where restaurants and markets have lost a considerable amount of costumers. Widely shared posts on social media urging boycotts of Asian businesses are easily found online — messages which, in themselves, do nothing against the spread of the coronavirus.
italy is now the most infected country outside of China but you can guarantee that people won’t be avoiding pizza the same way they did with Chinese food
— marc 🏴 (@moranmarc13) March 11, 2020
What emerged in parallel with new safety measures being put in place in western countries was a new form of a coping mechanism for many — that is, buying abundant supplies of toilet paper, sanitary products, and food. The phenomenon of emptying grocery store shelves has promptly established itself in the last couple of weeks.
At best, this may be explained by the psychology behind the false sense of safety stockpiling creates. According to Dr. Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia who also wrote the 2019 book The Psychology of Pandemics:
“One thing that happens during pandemics, when people are threatened with infection, is that their sensitivity to disgust increases. They are more likely to experience the emotion of disgust and are motivated to avoid that.”
He has further explained that the feeling of disgust is closely linked to the fear of being infected. According to him, toilet paper is seen as a symbol for cleanliness and safety, partly due to its distinctive appearance: it is bulkier and takes up more space on shelves.
But at worst, this phenomenon may be viewed as something more than just a psychological tendency. According to psychologist Emma Kenny, the fact that people are prioritizing the purchase of toilet paper over food shows that “people are not really that concerned about the virus itself but more about holding on to those first-world comforts of being able to use the toilet.” Although the impulse in stockpiling has also been seen in some Asian countries, the reasoning behind it tends to differ in those cases. Associate Professor Nitika Garg from the University of New South Wales has compared the buy-ups in the west to that of Asian countries, and explained that the latter is more driven by a sense of pragmatism: for instance in China, “there’s a thinking that toilet paper can be substituted for tissues and napkins and to make makeshift masks.”
In UK, people are queuing for hours at supermarkets and stockpiling toilet roll.
In Holland, people are queuing for hours at coffee shops and stockpiling weed.
I suspect self-isolation will be easier for the Dutch. pic.twitter.com/tZdAK8C4za
— Damon Evans (@damocrat) March 16, 2020
I, for one, could not actually find any reports of drastic coronavirus-related stockpilings happening in Asian countries. In Singapore, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing even announced that the nation does not face “any immediate risks of running out of food or other supplies brought in by [their] retailers” and advised people to “purchase in a responsible manner and to purchase only what [they] need”. This is not to cross out the idea that that panic-buying happens at all in Asia, but the lack of accounts on it has given me a reason to believe that the phenomenon is more cultural than we’d like to think. Although societal nuances are worth noting for each country, I am consternated with the disregard many grocery shoppers have had towards those who may need certain products more urgently than them — the inability to even imagine taking someone else’s interest as one’s own during times of crises.
Featured Artwork by Clara Armstrong