I WAS reading an article in The Guardian recently that talked about how the fears about the novel coronavirus has led to a reaction that is quite surprising. Since the news spread that this virus began life in Wuhan, China, it has become inextricably linked with Chinese people. Any Chinese people, not necessarily people from Wuhan or even from China.
The writer was British of East Asian descent, one of many immigrants to the UK that has made that country far more diverse today than the days when I studied there.
The immigrants’ arrival meant that you can eat almost any cuisine you want in many British cities or buy ingredients to make your own at the grocer. If you’re not a cook or have no time, you can buy ready-made chicken masala, roast duck or even nasi lemak at your local supermarket. None of these existed when I was a student in the 70s.
In London and many of the big cities, you might be served by Italian waiters, have your hair done by Romanian stylists, nails manicured by Vietnamese women, buy your jeans from a young woman in a hijab or have your house renovated by a Polish contractor. People get used to this diversity of nationalities and think it’s normal most of the time.
Then something happens. One of the events that changed things
was, of course, Brexit. In blaming everything on immigrants, many British people thought that life would be so much better without them. This still remains to be seen. But for many migrants, life has turned for the worse with a rise in the number of violent incidents against some of them including Muslims, Jews, Poles and anyone who simply doesn’t seem “British” enough. The tabloid media in the UK can be incredibly racist, their most famous victim probably being Meghan Markle.
Most of us who only visit the UK occasionally will probably not notice such racism. To be fair, it’s not something that happens every day, especially if you confine yourself to very liberal places like London. And to be also fair, it wasn’t just white people who voted for Brexit. Some immigrants did too, just as there were African-Americans and people of different ethnicities who voted for Trump.
But, as the story about the coronavirus illustrates, racism can be just under the surface. As the writer looks Asian, she found that on the bus to work, a man next to her immediately scrambled to gather his things and stood up to avoid sitting next to her. She overheard people saying that they would not go to Chinatown because “they have that disease”. Someone who works with Chinese students is
terrified that they might become infected, never mind that the students had been there since before the virus emerged.
It doesn’t matter if none of this makes sense from a purely medical point of view. The disease that is spreading faster than the coronavirus is a mental and emotional one that brands an entire race as dangerous. Undoubtedly, China is an vastly populous country with over one billion people. But it is also a large country and thus far, we know that the epicentre of the outbreak is Wuhan. Which leaves huge parts of the country, and its people, uninfected and with the Wuhan lockdown, probably unlikely ever to.
Then of course, not all Chinese in the world come from China. The US Secretary for Transportation is Elaine Chao, an American of Chinese origin. Imagine if people started avoiding her because they link her ethnicity with the coronavirus too.
Public health crises like SARS or the current coronavirus turn up much more than medical and health issues. They reveal a lot about people’s prejudices and biases. Calls for banning travel to and from source crisis come up very quickly but even then, can be biased. I don’t recall anyone calling for a travel ban to and from Saudi Arabia when we had the Middle East Respiratory Syndrom (MERS) coronavirus. Yet the 2.4 million pilgrims who converge on Mecca and Medina every year are surely ripe for originating all sorts of diseases.
Such prejudices need to be eliminated for public health to work. We have a resurgence of polio in Sabah because undocumented children were not vaccinated against it. That exemplifies a prejudiced bureaucratic mind overriding a scientific medical one, one that simply does not see that there are many more human beings who breathe the same air as those listed in our government registers, and who are even more susceptible to health issues for the very reason that we don’t acknowledge their existence.
It doesn’t help of course that there are any number of amateur “experts” ready to add their fervid two sens’ worth, spreading lurid stories and ridiculous conspiracy theories with no particular goal in mind other than scaring people. Some claimed that the coronavirus was deliberately let loose in Wuhan because it is a majority-
Muslim city, and this was a way of eliminating them. Such claims are about as responsible as the one many years ago which insisted that HIV was deliberately planted in Africa to destroy black people.
The fact of the matter is
that viruses are the most non-discriminatory beings on earth. They truly don’t care about race, religion, politics, gender, sexuality or however else you define yourself. All they care about is survival. To survive, they depend on us human beings and how we behave. Refuse to wash our hands, close our mouths when we cough or sneeze or have unprotected sex and we’re helping the virus survive. Undoubtedly, we also don’t have to look for trouble by going to crowded places where we can’t
be sure of everybody’s hygiene standards.
When it comes to public health issues, it is the mind that matters most. Feed it with sound, accurate knowledge and it will respond in a sensible way and keep everyone safe. Feed it with sensationalist nonsense and you can expect it to panic and behave in irrational ways.
Imagine if one day there was
a virus that originated in our kampungs. Will we accept everyone shunning us?
Marina Mahathir is obsessive about washing her hands and thinks that the real public health crisis is the 14,087 traffic accidents and 138 deaths over the Chinese New Year holidays. The views expressed here are solely her own.
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