Holding Beijing Accountable For The Coronavirus Is Not Racist

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 3, March 2020

By Ho-fung Hung, Johns Hopkins University

Digital generated image of macro view of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Getty Images/Andriy Onufriyenko

As the coronavirus global pandemic is unfolding and deteriorating, an age-old racial stereotype that associates contagious diseases with Asian/Chinese people reemerged. Reports about Asians being beaten up and accused of bringing the disease to the community are disheartening. The use of the phrase “sick man of Asia” in connection to the outbreak and calling the disease “Wuhan pneumonia” or “Chinese virus” invoked accusations of racism. We in higher education kept hearing episodes of Asian students harassed by comments from fellow students or faculty that associate them with the virus.

This racial association of contagious diseases often surfaces with epidemics in history. During the SARS epidemics of 2003, Western media was full of articles, images, and cartoons that explicitly characterized the diseases as an Asian one, as my research documented. In medieval Europe, the spread of epidemics like bubonic plagues often triggered harassment or even massacre of ethnic minorities such as Jewish people. Perennial as it is, this racial association is not only harmful but is also counterproductive to the effective containment of the disease. Epidemics know no ethnic boundary. They always spread beyond ethnic lines very quickly. The racial association of disease makes us overlook carriers who happen to be not among the stereotyped groups. We have to combat xenophobic racism at the time of an epidemic as hard as we can. Continue reading