How the Coronavirus Epidemic is Portrayed in Media & Internet: Paranoia, Racism and Politics


Since its outbreak in Wuhan, China in early January, an epidemic caused by a novel specie of coronavirus, which can lead to severe pneumonia and potential death, had grabbed the attention of the whole world. At the moment when this article is being written, more than 28,000 diagnoses and 573 deaths had been confirmed in mainland China alone, and a Durham student had been tested for the virus. Given the extent of globalisation and mobility the society we all live in, people living in Europe and America have ample reasons to be worried or concerned, and their sense of alarm was reflected in media coverages and online discussions.

However, amongst feelings of fear and anxiety sometimes one can discern darker, more problematic undertones of paranoia, racism, and politically charged hostility, and in some instances they are expressed quite openly – from attacks and harassment towards people of Chinese or east Asian ethnicities, to cartoons and memes online, to media coverage and news stories, to the more surreptitious attitudes people held towards the epidemic – which makes one can’t help but start to wonder how differently people of this country may react to the coronavirus epidemic and its victims, if it has happened to another country.

The paranoid fears of some people, and the racist or xenophobic harassments accelerated by paranoia, had been reported and discussed more extensively on newspapers and in online communities. To name just a few cases, a music institute in Italy had banned all east Asian students from entering classrooms until they’ve passed a health test. An owner of a Chinese restaurant (rather unfortunately in this cases, the restaurant is called ‘Wuhan 1950’) in Canada was harassed and asked if his cuisines include bat soup. A Chinese woman in Germany was attacked on a street in Germany for being suspected of carrying the virus, her injury was so severe that she was later sent to the hospital.

My own friends living in other parts of England had been called ‘dog-eaters’ and ‘Chinese virus’ by white teenagers when walking on the street. And there were many, many more. It is expected, but nonetheless alarming, that under current circumstances, under fear and panic, some may found a more justified excuse for xenophobic or racist tendencies. ‘We’re not against Chinese people’, commenters online had told me when I posted about instances of Sinophobia, ‘We’re simply against the virus’, unwittingly forgetting that the assumption all people of east Asian ethnicity now carry the coronavirus is itself an act of judging and discriminating people base on their ethnicity.

Problematic undertones of paranoia, racism, and politically charged hostility

There’s another, less discussed aspect of negative reactions that I think is worth pointing out, which may be described as the political layer. Frankly speaking, I don’t think ‘racism’ is enough to explain a lot of the attitudes people are showing towards the crisis – if the epidemic outbreak had begun in Japan, would Europeans and Americans be equally hostile to the Japanese? Would the media devote equal coverage to how nightmarish and apocalyptical situation in Japan is, how incompetent its government is at dealing with the crisis, while paying much less attention to the outpour of donations, the efforts of volunteers and the courage, cooperation and mutual support shown amongst residents of the quarantined city? Why there are so few hashtags of ‘#PrayforWuhan”? Is it because people are less likely to sympathize with China?

Is it too bold to suggest that the hostility one felt towards China as a political entity, and towards the Chinese government, could colour reactions, because one is happy to see bad things happen to a country one does not like, whose ideology and political agendas people do not agree on? And the line between anger and criticism towards a country’s government and hostility towards the people living within it can be blurred – to the extent of people starting to forget or downplay the actual human sufferings.

This is a time for solidarity, not stigma

The epidemic is still spreading, the number of people affected by it is growing too, so does fear and emotions. But I think it is appropriate to end with the following quotes from WHO’s speaker: ‘This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.’ And last but not least, what this article is hoping to remind people of, ‘those are not numbers, they are people.”

Image: Tomas Roggero via Flickr

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