Officials in protective gear disinfecting Indonesian students as they disembark upon the arrival at Hang Nadim international airport in Batam following their evacuation from the Chinese city of Wuhan. Photo: Indonesian Embassy / AFP

A few days ago I was hospitalized. For somebody who recently had a business trip to China, the timing of my hospitalization was bad. I knew it, and I knew what was to come. Together with three colleagues, I had traveled from Thailand to Kunming for work-related reasons. Our itinerary was primarily from hotel to the office and vice versa, except for a few hours at a restaurant for our dinners and a short last-minute visit to a nearby mall to grab some gifts to bring home.

Nevertheless, when I decided to seek medical help two weeks later for what turned out to be due to acute gastroenteritis and anemia, it instantly dawned on me how the stigma of being associated to the so-called Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV), whether having actually contracted it or not, could break someone’s spirit. I mean, really break.

As the online world sees a flood of mixed reactions to the situation, involving particularly those who are suspected to have a flu, whether 2019-nCoV or just the common variety, the world has also seen how this epidemic has given rise to social issues that, if not handled well, can easily racialize and politicize the situation and the people involved by playing to racism and a racialized culture of fear. Such a culture of fear has played to the insecurity of many people and spurred panic at over imagined infections resulting from many different forms of exposure to others who are deemed as possible carriers.

I am not Chinese, yet the reactions of people who learned about my hospitalization and my recent China trip revealed how much worse it could have been for someone from there. In other countries too, although many fears have been born out of a perceived threat to their security and health, some people have taken advantage of the situation to advance their own political motives.

Racializing the virus outbreak

Why are racist and discriminatory slurs unfolding in the face of this outbreak? While some argue heavily for blanket-banning Chinese nationals for the solely medical-oriented purpose of stopping the spread of the virus from one international border to the other, others have taken their arguments to an unreasonable level, exposing what seem to be their issues with Chinese society in general, resulting in heavy race-related attacks, thus racializing the situation.

Australians, for example, were warned about a hoax health notice against eating noodles, fortune cookies or Chinese-sounding kinds of fried rice. Other hoax notices advised Australians against eating any Asian foods as they were purportedly contaminated with 2019-nCoV.

A French newspaper used the racially charged phrases “Yellow Alert” and “New Yellow Peril” on separate dates as its headlines, drawing outrage from its readers.

The term “Yellow Peril,” also known as the “Yellow Terror” and the “Yellow Specter,” refers to a racist color-metaphor that paints peoples from East Asia as an existential threat to the West. It uses pheno-typical markers, particularly one’s skin color, to create a racial divide.

Coined by German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1895, “Yellow Peril” refers to “the fear that the mass immigration of Asians threatened the wages of whites and their standards of living, the fear that Asians had some sort of unnatural sexuality that threatened Western women with rape and the fear that they would eventually take over and destroy Western civilization, replacing it with their ways of life and values … the fear and/or belief that East Asian societies would attack and wage wars with Western societies and eventually wipe them out and lead to their total annihilation, whether it be their societies, people, ways of life, history, and or cultural values.”

A paper by Belgian academics Nick Schuermans and Filip De Maesschalck refers to this practice as cultural racism. It means that the “exclusion of ‘strangers’ is legitimated on the basis that they are culturally different and that their presence leads to conflicts.”

In other cases, however, what some view as a racist slur is instead seen as differences in people’s cultural understandings and logic. This was what the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten argued when it released a satirical cartoon that showed a Chinese flag that had its yellow stars replaced with coronavirus graphics.

Asserting that the use of the satirical cartoon was an editorial right that was consistent with the newspaper’s cultural understanding of things, it refused to release a public apology to the Chinese Embassy in Denmark despite the latter’s demand for it.

Politicizing the crisis

In some parts of the world, the ongoing racial issue involving people’s varying reactions to the nCoV situation has slowly turned out to be an opportunity for propaganda-based groups to take advantage of and politicize the situation.

It has become commonplace to read about how political groups, or even public offices, play to people’s everyday fears. The manipulation of people’s fear of a social issue used “as a political weapon,” for example, is something that Schuermans and De Maesschalck discuss in their paper.

Meanwhile, politically motivated individuals, groups, and government offices have responded to the outbreak in ways that some perceive as politicization of the situation.

In “Truth in Government and the Politicization of Public Service Advice,” Richard Mulgan of the Australian National University poses several relevant questions, such as, “What counts as truth or objectivity in advice? Is politicized distortion or misrepresentation a result of public pressure from politicians or self-motivated?”

Mulgan maintains, “The concept of public service ‘politicization’ is to be understood within the context of the values associated with a professional public service. In order to be able to offer the same degree of loyal service to governments of differing political persuasions, professional public servants are expected to maintain a certain distance from the concerns of their political masters.” When that distance erodes, politicization takes place.

Social-media posts have been very revealing. After the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte was criticized for slacking on its approach to the ongoing nCoV situation in the Philippines, Facebook users in the country noticed a spate of posts that discerning social-media users have identified as having been produced by troll farms.

Collins Online Dictionary defines a troll farm as “an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments.”

These Facebook posts came out at almost the same time and echoed the same views, underscoring sentimentalism that played to people’s “humanity” for Chinese nationals over the coronavirus situation. They all followed one story plot, with slight twists to the alleged Chinese individuals and circumstances being referred to.

One post involved a supposed Chinese neighbor in a condominium who has two kids. Another was about a Chinese man on a street who kept on muttering, in defense of himself, that he was “not sick, not sick.” Both posts tried to engage unsuspecting readers emotionally by slipping in words such as “compassion” and “humanity.” The posts also included statements such as “Let’s pray for each other’s good health, regardless of race. This is not a time to blame and discriminate. Yes, don’t forget PRECAUTION. But don’t be so overwhelmed by that and set aside COMPASSION. HUMANITY, as you say.”

On February 1, a day after the purported troll posts inundated various social media platforms, a Philippine public official released a statement referring to Chinese nationals’ situation in the country along a similar line. The call was to “empathize with them instead.”

Setting the boundaries

In situations such as what is going on now, it may sometimes be difficult for people to see clearly the boundary between a racialized and politicized comment and one that is not.

For example, the Danish newspaper’s defense that there was nothing wrong with its editorial cartoon, as the issue was more about cultural differences than racism, could be tricky as the two parties involved were operating on two different cultural norms and practices.

However, although racial and political neutrality may be difficult to attain in some situations, when evidence that points to an individual’s attempt to play down a government’s accountability to a public issue is undeniable, it becomes a different matter.

Analiza Perez-Amurao

Dr Analiza Perez-Amurao is assistant professor and chairwoman of the Humanities and Language Division, Mahidol University International College in Thailand. She holds a PhD in multicultural studies from the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University, a Master of Arts in English Language and Literature Teaching from Ateneo de Manila University, and a postgraduate diploma in teaching English as a second or foreign language from the Regional Language Centre, Singapore.

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