The new coronavirus and racist tropes

February 25, 2020
A resident wears a protective mask as she walk on an empty business street on February 13, 2020, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Photo by Stringer/Getty Images

Last month, as news of the coronavirus now known as covid-19 spread, the New York Times published a story about “China’s omnivorous markets.” One of them, Huanan Seafood Market, was identified as a likely source of the outbreak. The story surfaced concerns, first raised during when SARS flared up, in 2002, about the sale of wild game in China—“a perfect laboratory for the unintentional incubation of new viruses,” wrote the Times, paraphrasing a health official. Markets like Huanan sell meat, produce, and “more unusual fare, including live snakes, turtles and cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs, otters, palm civets, even wolf cubs.” The catalogue was, it seems, meant to surprise non-Chinese readers; the effect orientalized Chinese people. Pamela Mejia, head of research at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, has noticed exoticizing language—references to “tradition” and “superstition”—in lots of the coronavirus coverage. “No one has said ‘inscrutable’ yet,” she said. “But it’s implied.”

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Soon, bats were identified as having originated the virus. People in China are regularly exposed to these “biological super villains,” according to CNN. Scientists who travelled to neighboring Myanmar to research coronavirus in caves found themselves covered in “bat feces as it fell on them,” the Washington Post wrote. “Many of the caves serve as holy places, and custom calls for people to take off their shoes and socks, leaving their feet exposed.” Kent Ono, a professor of communications and Asian American studies at the University of Utah, found the press coverage to be reminiscent of articles published in the lead-up to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all ethnically-Chinese laborers from the United States. At the time, journalists fixated on the Asian rat as the source of bubonic plague. The rat became a barbarizing shorthand for the east. “It’s not shocking that, this time, the animal of choice as carrier of the virus is the bat,” Ono said. “Figuratively, a bat is a flying rat. The implication is that if humans in China are touching guano (bat dung), it marks the entire culture as unsanitary.” 

It’s true that contact with wild game and bats can spread disease. But too many articles have missed the cultural significance and socioeconomic factors that underlie China’s reckoning with the coronavirus—and instead suggested that America is more sanitary, more evolved, more pure. By late January, the US press was publishing five to seven thousand articles on coronavirus a day, Mejia estimated, and she viewed it as driving racism—now rising sharply against Asian people across the globe. 

The logistics of providing care—an aspect of the story that involves Chinese people as medical professionals and activists, not just victims—has received relatively little attention.

During the outbreak of SARS, journalists made many of the same mistakes. In a 2007 study, Laura Eichelberger, a medical anthropologist at the University of Arizona, identified media’s reliance on exoticizing caractatures and clichés. “In Asia, many people eat bats or use bat feces in traditional medicine,” Eichelberger quoted from the Times, circa 2005. Per Newsweek, in 2003: “Pigs, ducks, chickens, and people live cheek-by-jowl on the district’s primitive farms, exchanging flu and cold germs.” Eichelberger observed that, as more articles like these were published on the SARS outbreak, businesses in New York City’s Chinatown suffered losses of between 30 and 70 percent.

For news about the coronavirus, Maria Repnikova, a scholar of Chinese political communication at Georgia State University, has relied on reporting from Chinese media. A recent piece, in Caixin, charted the spread of the virus “without emotion,” she said. “The market was the first step, but then you saw, very quickly, the human-to-human transfer. It showed the market wasn’t even that important.” Huanan market was dirty, to be sure, but the problem wasn’t which meats were sold there. The real culprit, the Caixin article explained, was a lack of accessible information about the disease.

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Another aspect of the coronavirus story—so far mostly untold in the US—is that of corruption in the Chinese Red Cross. Aid supplies sit, undistributed, in warehouses; sometimes the organization charges hospitals for supply donations. “There are fears of packages being stolen at the post offices,” Repnikova said. “Given that it’s dangerous, what is happening on the ground? Which NGOs do you trust?” The logistics of providing care—an aspect of the story that involves Chinese people as medical professionals and activists, not just victims—has received relatively little attention.

Alongside all of the reporting are images: photographs that define the coronavirus in our consciousness. The Times ran close-ups of Chinese New Year celebrants shrouded by surgical masks as they prayed. There were pictures of masked children huddling close to their parents as officials took their temperature. Other stories focused on the bats: starkly-lit, their features alien and hideous. To combat the stigmatizing effects of the “Asian faces in masks” photography, Repnikova recommended publishing images that showcase Chinese efforts to manage the outbreak. “Also the scene itself, without the people, would show the isolation and sadness and fear, without sparking so much racism,” she said. “Empty shelves, empty streets in such a populated country are powerful.”

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Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.