The Coronavirus and the search for scapegoats

Opinion: A surge in racist, anti-Chinese sentiments is currently sweeping social media, writes Robert Bartholomew.

During times of crisis, people look for scapegoats to blame for their problems. It’s part of the human condition. Right now, it’s the Chinese. Since the Coronavirus outbreak, there are reports of people shunning Asians and Chinese, while the internet has exploded with social media posts depicting the Chinese as "dirty" and deserving of what they get for dining on creatures that many Westerners would consider pets. Many of the posts are vile and racist.

Foreigners and outsiders—people who anthropologists call the Other—have long been the first to be blamed for infections. During the 14th century, when the Bubonic Plague swept across Europe, it wasn’t called the European Plague—it was just "the Plague" or "the Black Death" on account of the lymph nodes turning dark. The Jews most often took the blame for spreading the dreaded sickness and were accused of poisoning wells or trying to infect others directly. Many Jews were murdered based solely on rumor and innuendo. Entire villages were wiped out in retaliation.

Widespread anti-Semitism during this period may have served to protect Jews during outbreaks as they were often forced to live in isolated communities where they practiced religious rituals that promoted hygiene, such as washing one’s hands before eating certain foods or after using the toilet. While these practices may have spared some of them from the ravages of the epidemic, it cast suspicions as rumors spread to explain why some communities were not hit as hard.

What’s in a name?

The World Health Organisation has recommended using the temporary name "2019-nCov" to describe the current epidemic*. While it’s not exactly a catchy name, it is a vast improvement over the current one. The year refers to when it was discovered, the "n" stands for its new or novel nature, while the "CoV" denotes that it is a Coronavirus.

*Since the time of writing, the novel coronavirus has been given the name COVID-19.

In 2015, the World Health Organization published a set of guidelines for naming infectious diseases. In it, they discouraged making references to people and places as well as animals and occupations. They also recommended against using terms that are likely to “incite undue fear”. They came up with these guidelines with good reason—to avoid the potential for social stigma. One particularly egregious recent example was GRID—the original name for AIDS. It stood for Gay Related Immune Deficiency.

Since the outbreak, some Chinese citizens feel they are being discriminated against with blanket travel bans. They have also been the subject of fake news reports that have gone viral on social media. These types of reports feed into pre-existing prejudices and stereotypes of Chinese people as cold, calculating, opportunistic, and amoral.  

Demonising certain ethnic groups and nationalities during epidemics has been a mainstay throughout history. The Great Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919, was initially dubbed the Spanish Flu—a description that is still widely used today. It doesn’t seem to matter that health experts agree that it didn’t originate in Spain, which took the blame because it was where flu reports first appeared in the popular press. Many countries involved in the war were reluctant to reveal news of the epidemic, not wanting to show weakness to the other side. The Spanish were essentially punished for their honesty and transparency.

While experts have been unable to prove where the epidemic originated, over the years, two prominent hypotheses have emerged: an American military base in Fort Riley, Kansas, and a British base at Étaples, France. It was never renamed the American or French Flu. More recently suspicions about that flu have fallen on China, but no one can say for certain.

During the 1892 cholera epidemic in the U.S., the scapegoats were newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Europe. Some were evicted from their dwellings (under the pretext that they were breeding grounds for cholera) and were forced to undergo humiliating exams. These inspections and exams had little scientific basis. During the early 1990s, Haitians were stigmatised as carriers of AIDS and HIV. In the U.S., some parents refused to let their children attend school with Haitians, fearing that they could catch the disease. Others were harassed and beaten. One student was even set on fire. During the H1N1 virus outbreak of 2009, popularly known as swine flu, there was widespread prejudice against Latin Americans. Five years later, when the Ebola epidemic struck, those of African descent were stigmatised. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control has tried to tamp down fears of Chinese people by announcing: “We should not assume because someone is of Asian descent that they have the new coronavirus.” That’s easier said than done.  

We should not assume because someone is of Asian descent that they have the new coronavirus.

Nancy Messonnier National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Throughout history, groups on the margins of society have faced similar scapegoating after being blamed for society’s problems. In recent times, it has been Muslims, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers who seem to get a disproportionate share of the blame. Occasionally, it’s a nationality. To find out which group is in disfavor, go to the cinema, where for the past several decades, most of the villains have been Russians, Chinese, Iranians, mad scientists, and twisted millionaires. During the 1950s and '60s, Communists and homosexuals were society’s evil-doers. In the wake of economic depression following the Great War, Hitler infamously blamed the Jews for the nation’s woes. What is less well-known is that the prejudice against Jews was so strong that despite stories of Nazi persecution, the U.S. only took in about 10 percent of their annual quota of Jewish asylum-seekers fleeing Nazi Germany, amid absurd rumors that many were spies for Hitler. These claims were fueled by anti-Semitism in the State Department and reinforced by popular stereotypes about Jews as cunning and lacking in morality.

When we label epidemics after ethnic groups and nationalities, we risk creating a world of "them versus us" instead of "we." It’s time to overcome our fear of those who look, speak and act differently. Let’s not throw fuel on the fire by labeling Chinese as disease-carriers. It’s time to recognize these labels for what they really are: human constructs.

We can rewrite the script.

Robert Bartholomew is an Honorary Academic in the Department of Psychological Medicine within the University of Auckland's School of Medicine. He specialises in social panics, popular delusions and mass suggestion.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Psychology Today, The Coronavirus and the Search for Scapegoats, 6 February 2020.

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