The recent coronavirus outbreak in China has significantly heightened fears of a global pandemic, fuelling racism in the wake of social media. In the modern era, where individuals are more connected to their devices than to print media, information is accessed faster and more frequently online. Unlike our predecessors, we no longer have to wait for the morning newspapers to get our information, having online sites provide a greater quantity of news. It is through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that the majority of us receive our news. This fundamentally changes the way humans respond to health scares. Social media has provided an outlet for an outpouring of misinformation, racism and fear, as information is frequently altered and magnified. Readily available, they encourage a cycle of xenophobia and mistrust. As a result, the global response to the coronavirus outbreak has largely been alienating and discriminatory.
One of the biggest impacts of the coronavirus outbreak is the way in which misinformation is rapidly shared and re-tweeted. One widely spread article suggests that all Chinese people eat bats and rats, enabling the virus to spread. Attached to the article is a video of a woman eating a live bat, posted on online news and social media outlets such as News.com, the Daily Mail, Facebook, and Twitter. Comments immediately erupted on social media, calling Chinese people “dirty,” “disgusting,” and “revolting.” Currently, there is insufficient evidence to prove that the virus originated from bats. Additionally, the video did not originate from Wuhan, instead being from Palau. Misinformation such as this creates perceptions in the West that Chinese people are abnormal and strange. Online comments frequently tell Chinese people to “return to eating bat soup,” blaming them for the virus rather than offering messages of support.
The largest effect of this misinformation has been increased racism, most acutely felt by Chinese diaspora in the West. Australian news outlets have created headlines such as “China virus” and some French newspapers promoted Chinese stereotypes. To some, these headlines may appear to be harmless, if not a little provocative. To the Chinese community however, they are seen as a means of separating “us” from “them,” creating further alienation by suggesting that the virus is one exclusively carried by Chinese. It is not racist to say that people who have recently arrived from China should self-quarantine. However, generalizations about Chinese people as a whole such as, “all Chinese people are uncivilized,” or “they’re disgusting,” are. After 7 News posted an article on an anti-China sentiment rising as a result of the virus, comments on their Facebook post recounted stories about “running away from Chinese people,” because they never knew if they’d transmit the virus. In a country with a large Australian-Chinese population, these comments are highly hurtful as they promote stereotypes and encourages looking down on the Chinese diaspora. This undoes decades of working towards increasing inclusion, respect and multiculturalism.
The branding of an entire race as “dirty” is a clear example of Edward Said’s discourse on Orientalism and the “Other,” characterizing the unwanted in terms antithetical to Western values. Said’s highly effective argument explores the ways in which racism is often played out in discourse, labeling another culture as horrifying, backwards and repulsive. Western states are seen as civilized and clean, while opposing parties are presented as violent, and dangerous. Simply looking at any headlines or Facebook comments makes it clear that this “Other-ing” is highly present in current discourse. The security needs of the Chinese people under lockdown and the overseas Chinese diaspora are ignored.
Solely relying on state governments or the World Health Organisation encouraging the world to stay calm is insufficient. Encouraging or ignoring false information only spreads racism and fear. Facebook is already attempting to regulate the spread of inaccurate comments, taking down posts which are not factually verified and discriminatory in nature. However, the widespread use of social media makes it simply impossible inaccurate information from spreading. It is up to individuals themselves to call out posts which seek to promote discrimination and separation. It is the person sitting behind the screen who must challenge stereotypical generalizations.
Around the world, individuals are fighting against racist mainstream discourse. In France, the hashtag #Jenesuispasunvirus (I am not a virus) is trending as Chinese diaspora push back against discrimination in public places. The Australasian College of Emergency Medicine has issued a statement condemning the increase in racism. The health crisis threatens everyone. We should not be attempting to demonize the “Other.” Rather, we should offer encouragement, whether through state-level aid or individual comments supporting families trapped in Wuhan.