Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Last week Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused “a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering”. This effect of the crisis has languished at the bottom of the long list of priorities, but President Trump’s insistence on using the term ‘Chinese Virus’ is but one illustration of how important the nationality of the illness has proven to be.
Anti-Asian hate crimes have increased in the UK because of fears surrounding the virus, and though we have heard less about these crimes since lockdowns began, that is not to say that they have ceased to take place.
The warning of a “tsunami of hate” should come as no surprise to the world. Not only is racism still a recurring issue throughout Europe and America, but China has specifically been the target of much xenophobic fear. They have been portrayed as a threat to our national security, an outdated Communist state. There may be some truth in political criticisms, but this should in no way provide us with an excuse to now ridicule China for their ‘dirty’ eating habits and blame them for causing an international outbreak of COVID-19.
These aspects are reminiscent of the Yellow Peril fear that has informed history and haunted the West since the 1800s: a fear that an unspecified horde of Eastern people will undermine the power of the West and bring it to its knees. These people are stereotypically uncivilised, wily, corrupt and dirty. China’s entrance into the global spotlight as the origin of COVID-19 has caused the UK to criticise them for their uncivilised food, dirty markets and corrupt government handling.
But from a nation that was eating horse meat for years, keeps chickens in unhygienic battery farms and has, as far as we know, a death toll roughly seven times higher than China, we must question where this sense of cultural superiority comes from and why we still insist on belittling a country that in several ways is one of the most advanced in the world.
What we need is a greater level of national introspection: do we have culturally specific eating habits that could be ridiculed to those unfamiliar with them? Is our personal data always respected by our authorities? Do we have government officials who sometimes tell lies? Yes, we may be able to voice our political beliefs more freely in the UK and our human rights record is different, but this is no reason to surrender to prejudices in a time of a universal health crisis.
The COVID-19 outbreak fits into a long timeline of anti-Chinese sentiment. Creating a dialectically Eastern Other, serves as a lever of political power for the West and ensures that a constant fear is maintained over us; we are never explicitly taught lessons about the importance of cross-cultural understanding, but if there was ever a time for them, it is now.
Instead of assuming Western culture to be the international norm, we could learn from others and use others’ cultures as a tool with which to analyse our own national philosophies. It is our responsibility as a generation of people in an increasingly globalised world to stay aware of all implicit prejudices, no matter how ‘sensical’ they may at first appear. After all, genuine enemies such as COVID-19 are blind to race and difference, rendering us all equally susceptible.
Guterres ended his speech with a call to “treat each other with dignity and take every opportunity to spread kindness”. I would add that we should begin to deconstruct the illusion of a dangerous Other and use this crisis as an opportunity to embark on a healing process guided towards international understanding.