Words from the author: I’m a Chinese student studying at Sciences Po. Since I stayed in Europe during the whole winter break and had no contact with people from infected areas, I’m 100 percent sure that I don’t have the coronavirus. But my source of fear does not come the Coronavirus, it comes from discrimination and hatred. On the 24th of February, I was walking back to my residence after my evening class. Two men on a motorcycle approached me. They first honked the horn, and I looked back at them (I did not wear a mask or a scarf). Then, all of a sudden, the man at the backseat threw his half-eaten sandwich at me and shouted, “regarde! C’est le virus!” (Look! It’s the virus!). Then the motorcycle quickly drove into the darkness, leaving me wordless with shock, rage and fear. I never thought this would happen here in Reims. It is astonishing that paranoia evolved into hatred and violence in such a short period. In light of this event, I wrote this article to present you, the readers, a unique perspective into the reasons behind the viral racism and paranoia the Coronavirus has spread.
“I was attacked on the street today. At first, two women called me ‘Chinese Virus’ and other insulting words. Then, they spat on me, tore my hair, and kicked me several times in the face. After that, my nose was broken, the blood was all over my face.” This is the testimony of a 23-year old Chinese girl in a Berlin hospital on January 31st. Though many people found this violence outrageous, similar cases of racial discrimination are far from scarce.
Ever since the new Coronavirus (COVID-19) broke out, panic seems to be spreading faster than the virus itself. For example, the Courrier Picard, a local newspaper in France, used the headlines “Alerte jaune” (Yellow alert) and “Le péril jaune?” (Yellow peril?), together with an image of a Chinese woman wearing a face mask. At first, readers may see these titles as perfectly normal since the virus was indeed first discovered in China. However, these headlines racialized the virus. “Yellow peril’ is a racist color-metaphor which stipulates that the peoples of East Asia are an existential danger to the Western world.
After many Asians protested under the #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus hashtag on Twitter, Courrier Picard removed the racist content from their publications and apologized, yet some others refused to do so. Therefore, after reading biased media, many started to believe that the Chinese are synonymous with the virus. Once the ‘target’ is set, all verbal insults and physical attacks would be ‘justified.’
According to Le Figaro, on January 25, around 9 p.m., designer Chen took the T3a tram line in Paris with a friend. A man in his fifties, with the collar of his jacket raised which covered half of his face, approached them and started to insult them. Initially, Chen and his friend decided to ignore him, but the man became more and more aggressive. He shouted, “If the Chinese virus arrived in France, it is the fault of the bat-eating Chinese. I hate the Chinese.” No one on the tram tried to stop the man before he got off the tram. From this story, it’s evident that the man was erroneous in his understanding of basic facts. In his mind, the Chinese eat bats and other horrible food sources. While in reality, these disgusting eating habits are not Chinese traditions, not to mention extremely rare, and despised by normal people. Moreover, according to the criminal law in China (No. 341) and the Wildlife Protection Act, it is illegal to capture or kill wild animals in their natural habitats. Since no law is perfect, certain transactions of wildlife went unregulated. But why are people assuming that certain people’s criminal behavior constitutes a Chinese tradition? In many situations, it’s the irresponsible remarks of certain parts of the press that sowed the seed of racial discrimination.
Apart from Courrier Picard, a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, turned the stars on the Chinese flag into the viruses. At a time when countless patients are suffering and dying because of the virus, Jyllands-Posten showed a startling lack of sympathy. Instead, the author went on to humiliate the country’s flag by implying every Chinese person is a virus. However, unlike Courrier Picard, Jyllands-Posten refused to apologize over its disputable cartoon and claims that its right to ‘free expression’ permits such insensitive works to be published.
Unsurprisingly, this attitude only produced more hatred. Chinese protesters fired back by turning the Danish flag into swastika, sanitary pads, and skulls. Though it is undeniable that the right of free press should not be violated, every right comes with an ethical boundary. According to European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), the state authorities should have national criminal laws that punish public incitement to violence, hatred or discrimination on the grounds of “race,” color, language, religion, citizenship, ethnic/national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity. However, due to the ineffective enforcement of these laws, racism and discrimination still exist in the media. And whenever there is a protest over these disputable contents, the freedom of speech always serves as an uncontestable excuse.
With the help of social media, rumors, and hatred, misinformation is spreading at the speed of light. On Twitter, videos showing Asian people eating “bat soups” are trending and presented as proof that the bizarre Chinese customs of certain Chinese people are the source of the breakout.
One of the trending videos shows a Chinese woman eating a bat which made many people believe that the Chinese are bat-eaters. However, that trending video was taken three years ago in Palau (an island country in the Pacific Ocean), which has virtually nothing to do with the present virus breakout. Also, the bat soup is a local cuisine. Without fact-checking, many posts on the internet are doing nothing but producing hate and spreading this dangerous misinformation. These posts not only have fake evidence but poor logic as well. If the police arrest a terrorist, can we label everyone in that country a terrorist? The logic does not follow through. Nevertheless, when a person is flooded with hundreds of posts of similarly poor logic, the rationality sometimes simply fades away.
In the future, there may be a vaccine against the deadly COVID-19 – but a vaccine to cure the hate and racism?
In fact, this remedy lays in our hearts, as long as we remember that it is the virus we are fighting against, not each other.