Every time a new illness goes beyond epidemic proportions and threatens to become a pandemic, humankind reacts with panic, bravery, rationality – and racism. The novel coronavirus, yet to be officially scientifically named, has set off anti-Chinese racism through sick rumours, slurs, libels and slanders.
The street, social media platforms, the media: these have been the carriers of an infectious xenophobia that has blamed Chinese people everywhere for the virus, alleging that their eating habits (wild animals, cats, dogs, “anything with legs apart from a table”) are in the main responsible for it. To take just one South African example, here is a bit of social media that did the rounds earlier this week:
“We urge citizens to stay away from China Mall. Most of the owners went back to China to celebrate the Chinese New Celebrations [sic]. They are returning and some are bringing along the coronavirus. Rather be safe than sorry. Please share this with your contacts and keep our people from this deadly virus that is spreading rapidly, worldwide.”
Here we see crude supposition and a clear us-versus-them divide. The world has been here before, regrettably too many times. In the three years from January 1918 to December 1920, an estimated 500 million people were infected by – and 50 million people died from – the H1N1 influenza virus pandemic. Contemporary readers will recognise H1N1 instantly, because there was an outbreak of the selfsame virus in 2009. But it would have meant nothing to anyone in the years 1918 to 1920, because the virus had colloquially been named the Spanish flu.
Did the “Spanish flu” begin in Spain, then? Or did it mean that the ham-eating habits of Spanish people were somehow implicated in the genesis, development and spread of the illness? Of course not. There is a far more prosaic explanation, and one all the more pathos-ridden for that reason.
In an act of early 20th-century spin, aimed at keeping up the morale of post-World War I populations, government censors downplayed reports of sickness and death from influenza that occurred in the United Kingdom, France, the United States and Germany. No such restrictions applied in Spain, however, where the monarch, King Alfonso XIII, had become seriously ill. Newspapers reported widely on the flu that was gripping and slaying Spaniards in town and country. The effect was to create the impression that Spain was hardest hit by the influenza outbreak and, in the inglorious tradition the media has often upheld, the illness was dubbed Spanish flu.
Spanish neither geographically nor epidemiologically, the “Spanish flu” went on to infect people as far-flung from Spain as the Arctic and Pacific island atolls. Some estimates put its death toll as high as 100 million, double the generally accepted figure. But for then, and for all time, the virus was weaponised as the Spanish flu, condemning both that country and its inhabitants to an eternity of attribution and blame.
There are no doubts about where the novel coronavirus began: in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in the People’s Republic of China. So far it has largely avoided being dubbed the Wuhan virus, although it is probable that name is in widespread use on social media. However, Australian headline-writers have not fought shy of “Chinese virus” (Herald Sun) and the Daily Telegraph down under ran a headline demanding “China kids stay home”.
France – perhaps because gilets jaunes, the “yellow vests” activist protesters, have been much in the consciousness of the state – issued a “yellow alert” about the virus outbreak. Italy, sadly now a markedly anti-immigrant, anti-outsider nation, exercised its xenophobia too, on the streets.
The global threat, as emphasised by Crystal Watson, senior scholar and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, is that “the [scientific] name it has now is not easy to use and the media and the public are using other names for the virus. The danger when you don’t have an official name is that people start using terms like China Virus, and that can create a backlash against certain populations.”
Sadly, that backlash has already begun. In South Africa, a report on Eyewitness News (EWN) carried a video clip with one section headed “China virus: Couple stranded on cruise”.
The UK advised its citizens to return home from China “if they can”. Reporting on that, The Guardian headlined its story “Is UK overreacting to coronavirus crisis by telling citizens to leave China?” It also reminded readers that the Australian and US governments had just banned travellers from China from entering their borders.
In ethnicising disease, governments play a perilous game. Although the world has always been global, air travel has put its hemispheres and poles only a half a day or so apart. The so-called globalising world rotates not only capital, goods, animals and people – it whirls around diseases and germs and viruses and bugs.
In contrast to the Australian, American and British governments, the World Health Organization (WHO) was quick to praise the efforts of the Chinese state in trying to restrain the virus. At the end of January, the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said, “I was very encouraged and impressed by the president’s [Xi Jinping] detailed knowledge of the outbreak and his personal involvement in the outbreak. This was for me a very rare leadership.”
That might well be true, but there are dissenting views. Writing in The Guardian, Jeffrey Wasserstrom acknowledged that the WHO described China’s response to the virus as setting “a new global standard” but argued that the age-old trait of state and bureaucratic secrecy were still very evident.
Whatever the real story behind the PRC’s dealing with the epidemic, whatever the panicked and xenophobic reactions to China and Chinese people, one thing cannot be denied: a virus to one is a virus to all. The novel coronavirus is not China’s problem, it is the world’s.