Mandy Wiener: Guard against xenophobia and coronavirus

Chinese factories are struggling to resume full operations amid virus-induced travel disruptions and safety measures.
Chinese factories are struggling to resume full operations amid virus-induced travel disruptions and safety measures.
Screen grab, AFP

In the face of a threat such as these, people tend to stick to their own and distance themselves from the unknown. It's almost apocalyptical, writes Mandy Wiener  

If you muster the "courage" to take yourself off to China Town in Cyrildene or one of the various Chinese markets around Johannesburg, you will likely find them eerily quiet currently.

Usually bustling, trade at many of these outlets has slowed down to a trickle.

People are acting out of alarm and self-preservation, staying away because they believe the risk of contracting coronavirus or Covid-19 is higher at these places because the virus originated at a market in Wuhan in China.

This belief is completely misplaced and based in a lack of knowledge and fear-mongering.  

In other countries we have seen victimisation of people of Chinese origin. 

Some have been called names, ridiculed and targeted.

Fortunately these have been no reports of this in SA - here it's manifesting as ostracism rather than aggression. But this is equally hurtful and offensive.  

I see it in my own community, in conversations with people, and on social media groups I am on.

People do not even realise they are being xenophobic or even vaguely racist.

And when it is pointed out to them, they are aghast at being tainted by this label.

"I'd rather be safe than sorry," they offer.

It’s shameful and appalling. A community is being ostracised and painted as pariahs.  

This behaviour is nothing new.

"Othering" racial groups or ethnicities in times of health crisis has been around for generations.  

Harvard University's Dr Hannah Marcus, an assistant professor in the History of Medicine, wrote in the New York Times that we have to guard against the xenophobia and persecution that arose during outbreaks of the plague.

"We should be on guard against the ways that outbreaks of disease have historically led to the persecutions of marginalised people. One of the best documented social outcomes of the plague in late-medieval Europe was the violence, often directed at Jews, who were accused of causing plague by poisoning wells.’ 

"Since the eruption of the coronavirus, we have witnessed widespread anti-Asian discrimination and numerous acts of violence against Asians. We should learn from the past, identify these violent attacks as the scapegoating they are, and condemn them swiftly and harshly," writes Dr Marcus.  

She goes on to say that the predictable turn to xenophobia, racism and persecution represents the breakdown of our society’s laws and morals in the face of fear and disease.

It, too, is a symptom of disease, if not a biological one. 

"In the coming months the coronavirus may continue to spread. We will need to be on guard against contagion, but we will also need to be on guard against our own human instincts."

Similarly Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says other racial and ethnic groups have faced similar scrutiny and discrimination during recent public health crises. 

"What you have over history and throughout modern-day outbreaks is people fixing blame on a contagious disease on outsiders," she said.

In 2009, H1N1 or swine flu, was associated with Mexican Americans.

In 2003, SARS with Chinese Americans and in the 1980s, HIV with Haitian Americans.

That virus was also called the "the 4H disease" - a reference to the "perceived risk factors" of 'Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin users. More recently, Ebola outbreaks sparked a wave of racism and xenophobia towards people from the African continent.

In the face of a threat such as these, people tend to stick to their own and distance themselves from the unknown. It's almost apocalyptical.  

A 2019 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science broadly found that infectious disease exposure may boost racial tension.

It also found that racial prejudice stems from the desire to avoid infectious diseases. 

Harvard researcher Brian O' Shea, the lead author, was quoted in the Harvard Gazette as saying that "We found that if you’re a white or black person living in a region with more infectious diseases, you have a strong feeling in favour of your in-group and a stronger opposition to your out-group ... And this effect occurs even if we control for individual factors like age, political ideology, religious belief, education and gender, and a number of state-level factors, including median income, inequality, race exposure, and more." 

Dr Barry Schoub, Professor Emeritus of Virology at Wits and also the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, is the country’s preeminent mind on viruses.

He says he has received many calls from people asking if it's safe to visit Chinese markets or buy Chinese goods locally and he's telling them "absolutely" they can.  

"There is no risk whatsoever from anything to do with ethnic Chinese South Africans. The risk is from people that have come from an epidemic. Obviously China is the prime spot but there are other areas like the north of Italy, Iran and South Korea. It's got nothing to do with ethnicity at all. Chinese ethnic people are not more susceptible to the virus. There’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to be at all cautious," says Professor Schoub.  

Commenting on the comparison drawn between how Jews were victimised during the plague and how Chinese are being treated now, he says there are some parallels.  

"Jews and the plague was really a purely racist, aggressive, hostile, anti-Semitic thing. I think it's more fear than direct hostility. People are mistakenly scared that if they go to Chinese shops, there are more likely to be people coming from China. There could be infected people coming from Italy or anywhere else where there is the virus.

"The risk is marginally more and not significantly more if you go there. I’m not at all worried about goods from China. It’s a delicate virus and it’s not going to survive for very long on inanimate objects. It would definitely not survive the journey from China," adds Professor Schoub.  

In South Africa, we have a very recent and ugly relationship with xenophobia.

I, for one, can never forget what I witnessed in 2007 when foreigners were barbarically attacked purely for being foreign.

It's a quick slide and extremely dangerous and we need to be vigilant about how we respond to the threat of coronavirus.

There are no cases yet in South Africa but when there are, it is inevitable that people will react with panic.

We must guard that this doesn’t deteriorate into persecution.  

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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