Some years after the end of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, I was working in a lab as part of a team which aimed to optimize the simultaneous diagnosis of several respiratory viruses, including the SARS coronavirus. Public hysteria was long gone but we felt its lingering effects and handled the genetic material with caution, even fear. To put things into perspective, it was hardly the Black Plague, with 8,096 probable cases and less than 800 deaths, but SARS had a reputation as a global catastrophe, with ramifications on tourism, public health, and culture. Just as experts in 2002-2004 warned the public that panic would cause more harm than good, experts warn us still as we struggle with the news that, as of this writing, we have had two cases of the dreaded novel coronavirus. The most recent advice to hit social media is to leave the masks to those at the front lines of health care or those with higher risk of exposure, quelling somewhat the urge among laypersons to hoard masks, and entrepreneurs to take cold-blooded advantage. The best advice is to stay out of crowded areas and practice basic hygiene, and to refrain from sharing unverified news to avoid unwarranted alarm. In the words of Douglas Adams—don’t panic.
To be fair to the layperson hoarding face masks, panic is not entirely misplaced. In the aftermath of the Taal volcanic activity, most deal with distrust of a government unable to handle and anticipate large-scale disasters, coupled with the lingering problem that we are still struggling to bridge gaps in health. Add to this the fact that many Filipinos continue to live in cramped conditions and lack access to the most basic medical care, and alarm seems to be, if not a rational reaction, then at least a justified one.
What’s not justified is the racism. Let’s leave the President’s wavering sentiments about the Chinese out of this, as well as the politics of a travel ban, or lack thereof. This week Adamson University issued an advisory for Chinese students to “self-quarantine,” regardless of travel history or contact with tourists or with known victims of the virus. It was a statement they later retracted, but it is a signal that we might be plunging back into the same wave of xenophobia that hurt Asian communities abroad in the wake of SARS.
It’s a phenomenon that has since been well documented, shining a light on how racism works and spreads in a time of hysteria. Analysis of reporting at the time also reveals its roots in media, which used provocative words (“mysterious,” “deadly,” “exotic”) and drew unfounded parallels with pandemics of the past, like the Spanish flu, resorting to exaggeration. Sensationalism and constant coverage had the effect of placing Asians abroad under a double burden: worrying for their own health and safety, and suffering the stigma of racial profiling, feeding fodder to anti-immigrant sentiment, and harming communities and businesses.
This time, we, on our phones and social media feeds, are the ones helping the panic along; mainstream media rarely has to lift a finger to provoke widespread worry. Hopefully we can learn to exercise more restraint in sharing information, but given our history of constant click-baiting and sharing of false news, hopes don’t run that high, and vigilance easily gives way to frenzy.
Race relations in our time are complex. For the past year there has been rising sentiment that the President cares more for the Chinese than for his own people, creating fear that they will be taking our jobs and livelihoods. His recent delayed response to calls to issue a travel ban seemed to support this. The reports of poor behavior of Chinese tourists add even more fuel to the flame. But the rhetoric we constantly hear about Chinese nationals has striking similarities to anti-immigrant sentiment abroad. Even as we worry about being infected by the novel coronavirus, we ought to worry, too, about the corruption of our perceptions, and infection with anti-foreigner sentiment. It may have more lingering effects on society than the coronavirus itself.
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