What started in China in December 2019 has quickly engulfed the entire world, exterminating scores, infecting thousands and spreading rapidly like wildfire.
Whilst the COVID-19 infection that has been declared a pandemic by the WHO and with countries grappling to contain its spread at any cost, this global anxiety has reawakened an alarming topic of conversation, the centuries-old prejudices against people of East-Asian descent, no matter which part of the world they are in.
In the face of this uncertainty, here's one thing that is crystal clear - the fear of developing an illness has come hither with an obnoxious cousin: xenophobia!
As the virus has spread from China to America to Europe and other countries, anti-Asian discrimination has followed closely behind, manifesting in plummeting sales, plunging stock markets, deserted streets and transit systems and racially prejudiced victimization against anyone perceived to be Chinese.
Covid-19, the current situation
Yes, panic about such a situation is expected as it should be. But, does that give people the chance to discriminate? Is a virus, a sickness an excuse to differentiate and create a social stigma, spread inflammatory language that has secretively surfaced merely as a way to reinforce existing prejudices?
Insidious prejudices against the Chinese and East Asians have always existed, but when millions are suffering from the virus, such behaviour merely against one group of people is unacceptable and disappointing.
In addition to the already existing stigma that a particular section of the society faces, in comes the echo chamber of hate and xenophobia, social media. Social media platforms have been rampant witnesses of harassment, racial slurs and stereotypes against Asians. Yes, the epidemic is new, sadly, the humiliation isn't!
What needs to be done?
In the 1800s, white labour unions had lobbied extensively to prohibit Chinese workers from entering the United States with a preposterous argument – Chinese strains of certain maladies, especially sexually transmitted diseases, were more infectious than white ones. Again in 1876, in California when the senate met to consider the demands of American labour to ban Chinese immigrants from America, sex and ailment grabbed headlines. Mind you, this hogwash was not the work of a single person.
They represented the elite, white, liberal society. By 1882, Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese labourers from travelling to the United States. But, while the numbers of Chinese immigrants nosedived rapidly, sadly, the anti-Chinese bigotry endured.
Yes, for some the distasteful jokes being strewn about the Coronavirus today are a way to cope with the epidemic that has befallen, why do the jokes show no empathy to the brave hearts who have been separated from families for months and are sacrificing their lives only to save patients? Where are the praises? Where are the accolades that should be bestowed upon them? Can a virus be racialized? How can we justify our fear by being racist and acting hostile?
There has been the unrestrained spread of derogatory messages on social media channels targeting Asian eating habits which have previously encountered prejudice for ages. Nonetheless, centuries later, people are still forcing this stereotype and drawing dated rhetoric that associates Chinese people with soiled food.
Corona turns people xenophobic?
Isn't it valid then, to ask the question: Why are we equating the virus and its spread to a specific race? We had witnessed similar derogatory behaviour when people of different ethnicities saw pushback following 2014's Ebola outbreak and SARS in 2002.
Do panic and chaos give us a chance to act reckless and be racist? Shouldn't it be the opposite? Should we not channelize our energies to support those who have been impacted? The panic needs to be eradicated in our own backyard.
We must work with what we know, which is that this deadly disease emerged in China and therefore explains the precautions different governments are taking to retrain its spread. But what should not be tolerated, is the mistreatment of those of Asian descent or appearance, without any knowledge of their health, travel history or ethnicity. Snarky comments, inappropriate social media posts and racist jokes are deterring.
At the office, in a public place, you may meet someone from Asian descent. Probably, you will not shake hands with him, a good old Namaste will suffice. Maybe you will even wear a mask when you step out of your house. Is this xenophobic? Not at all! This is a precaution against possible sickness, not just a virus.
Like any other disease, illness or epidemic, this virus has no race, no colour, no political affiliations. This is a deadly virus, a global pandemic with a real threat that needs to be eradicated, not ignored.
Ostracising one person simply because he hails from the same place the virus originated at is deplorable. If you and I continue to allow hatred and xenophobia to fuel the way we function as human beings, are we human at all?
[Somdutta Singh is an entrepreneur and former vice-chairperson of NASSCOM Product Council. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of International Business Times, India]