The novel coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China continues to ripple around the world. More than 20,000 cases have been confirmed across Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia, and the official death toll of 425 has surpassed that of the 2002-03 SARS outbreak.
The disease has led to dramatic responses by governments and private companies alike as the global health emergency worsens. Uber suspended 240 drivers’ accounts in Mexico over concerns they may have contracted the virus, while crypt-keeping enthusiast and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross used it as a chance to tout American jobs.
Globalization undoubtedly presents a unique set of challenges to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak, but there’s an underlying history of racism and xenophobic fears when it comes to disease control. And ghouls like Ross are trying to transparently capitalize on fears that even well-intentioned people can fall prey to.
The history of viewing “far-off” places populated by non-white people as “savage” or “unclean” goes back centuries. And that extends to perceptions around public health and disease. West Africa was once referred to by colonialists as “the white man’s grave” because of the rate that tropical diseases that wiped out European colonizers. Asia was similarly stigmatized over diseases that killed white colonizers and traders.
From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, European health officials set up a series of mandates called the International Sanitary Conventions, which were designed to respond to plague and cholera, two diseases they associated with Asia. Those conventions eventually became International Health Regulations, a binding set of rules for all countries around global health issues. The World Health Organization coordinates the regulations, the most recent of which came out in 2005 after the SARS and bird flu outbreaks in the preceding years.
Of course, containing diseases isn’t inherently racist, but the motives behind regulations can reveal who gets stuck with the burden of disease and who benefits the most from keeping disease in check.
“These regulations focused on diseases coming largely from colonies in the Global South with potential to spread to European and American ports,” Alexandre White, a sociologist and global disease historian, told Gizmodo, noting in a followup email that, “[b]ecause of the essential role that India and China played in international trade in the 19th century (and before) European imperial actors, in convening the International Sanitary Conferences were particularly concerned with maintaining trade with their most profitable colonies and trading partners...”
“This led to the rise in a particular scrutiny and ethnic biases against Asian people, especially Chinese migrants and Indian Muslims traveling around the world,” he added.
That speaks to a host of issues around treating public health (particularly white people’s health) as a commodity, but that’s for another day. Alexandre White pointed to the outbreaks of plague in the 1900s in Honolulu as a prime example of xenophobic response to disease. In Honolulu, the government quarantined Chinatown’s 7,000 residents. Again, quarantining people with a deadly infectious disease isn’t a bad thing. Quarantining people because of their heritage, however, is pretty fucking racist! And in case there was any doubt how officials in Hawaii viewed their efforts, here’s what C. B. Wood, a board of health member for the then-territory of Hawaii, said at the time: “Plague lives and breeds in filth and when it got to Chinatown, it found its natural habitat.”
After cases began to spread, city officials decreed any building where someone had contracted the plague be razed with fire. Forty-one buildings were identified and fires were set, but winds fanned the flames and the fire ended up destroying nearly the entire neighborhood. Four thousand people largely of Chinese descent were left homeless and were then housed in emergency camps. White noted that San Francisco took a similar tack to address plague, lighting fires in its Chinatown during a 1900-1904 epidemic.
More recently, we’ve seen the public freakout around the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. While West African communities weren’t burned to the ground in American cities, the panic over a disease that infected a whopping nine people in the U.S. was outsize of its actual impact. A portion of the panic ended up being pretty racist, from an #obola hashtag tying then-President Obama to the infectious disease pushed by birthers to reports of discrimination in a Dallas neighborhood that one of the Ebola victims had visited. Navarro College—now beloved because of Netflix’s Cheer—even sent out letters rejecting applicants from Nigeria after the outbreak began and well after the country’s last reported ebola case.
“There is heightened public panic when diseases are associated with the ‘Racial other,’” Charles Adeyanju, a sociologist at the University of Prince Edward Island who has written on disease perceptions, told Gizmodo in an email. “This is not unrelated to pre-existing notions of racial difference.”
The response to coronavirus betrays similar xenophobia in both state responses and the responses of individuals. Australia is forcing people who have recently been to China’s Hubei province—many whom are of Asian descent—and want to return to Australia to spend two weeks in quarantine on an island off its shores. Signs barring people of Chinese descent from entering businesses have appeared have appeared in Japan and South Korea. Racism has popped up in cities as diverse as Los Angeles and Toronto, from classroom bullying to racist responses to a Chinese restaurant review. In a now-deleted Instagram post, the University of California, Berkeley Health Services even went so far as literally normalizing xenophobia by including it on a list of “normal reactions” to the coronavirus outbreak.
Historical fears around foreign diseases have only become more intense in our current information and political environment. Social media sites have worked to contain misinformation. Twitter, for example, banned a high-profile account after it posted coronavirus conspiracies about the virus’s origin, doxing a Chinese scientist in the process. The post played on fears of China developing a “bioweapon,” and subsequent conspiracies have embellished on it to tie it to Chinese spies, opening the door to even more anti-Chinese sentiment.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is run by Donald Trump, who has fanned racist flames through his border policies, Muslim ban, and reportedly called African nations “shithole countries” (to name but a few examples). At the same time, anxiety of China as a rival center of power to North America and Europe has also become a central perception of the country, and by extension the coronavirus outbreak.
“From the latter part of the 20th century, the Chinese have become North America’s ‘model immigrants’ due to their economic success,” Adeyanju said. “However, their ‘rising’ has constituted a psychological and economic threat to the populations that once derided them as less than human.”
All of which is to say that, while coronavirus poses a serious threat and every effort needs to be made to contain it, there’s no reason to give into racist tendencies. The point has been made enough that if you’re in the U.S., you’re more likely to contract regular old flu than you are coronavirus, and you’re more likely to catch any disease from your own friends and family than from an immigrant or tourist. Taking precautions to protect yourself from getting sick (for starters, stop wiping your hands all over your damn face) will go a longer ways toward keeping you healthy than avoiding people of Asian descent.
Update, February 4, 2020, 5:20 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that only Australians who evacuated from Hubei province have been put in quarantine, not all Australians returning from China.