A new corona virus is no excuse to break out the racism

Ostracizing members of our community isn’t helpful when combating disease outbreaks

Only four cases of novel coronavirus have been confirmed in Canada. Photo: Chris Ho/The Peak

Update (April 23, 2020): The headline and sections of this article have been updated from their original version in order to clarify information that was inconclusive or partial at the time of writing.

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

By now, “coronavirus” is practically a household term, spoken in hushed, anxious whispers, and accompanied by sidelong glances whenever a shy cough is heard in a crowd. But fear of the new 2019–nCoV bug — from the same family as Sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the common cold — is just as viral as the illness it causes. This viral fear has already prompted a slew of racist sentiments in Canada — including at SFU — and it’s got to stop. Knee-jerk reactions and racialized panics don’t help the situation, and makes everyone feel less safe.

At the time of writing, four cases of novel coronavirus have been confirmed in Canada — three in Ontario and one in BC. In total, 106 deaths have been recorded worldwide. But it is worth putting this number into perspective: in Canada, an average of 3,500 people die annually of influenza. The seasonal flu rarely sparks the kind of hype and panic that outbreaks like SARS or nCoV do.While important differences between these pandemic viruses and the seasonal flu exist, before giving in to mass hysteria, we must ask ourselves if part of the differences in our reactions is due to a tendency to exoticize or racialize new virus strains.

The current nCoV virus is, at this time, considered to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and claims have been made that the illegal butchering and selling of wild animals is the cause of the outbreak. However, let’s not forget that historically, migrants have wrongfully been framed as unsanitary as a means to justify xenophobic policies of exclusion and discrimination. It is no stretch to assume that much of the panic over nCoV stems from a similar set of racist assumptions. We can’t claim to be morally outraged against an entire ethnicity over an outbreak of a new virus, while blithely accepting that thousands die each year in our own country of a similar, albeit annual, virus. The fact that nCoV is new and happened to originate in China doesn’t excuse being ugly and hateful toward the Chinese members of our community.

At the time of writing, the recent case of nCoV in Vancouver was handled swiftly and with incredible precautions taken to limit the spread of the virus. The affected individual, aware of the situation in China, self-quarantined and contacted health authorities before taking the appropriate measures to be diagnosed and safely treated. This was done in an environment of awareness, caution, and compassion. 

Now, imagine a situation in which people feel fear of racialized backlash and stigmatization over presenting even the most common of cold symptoms. It is far more likely in an environment of fear that people will avoid coming forward, take careful precautions, or get the treatment they need — increasing the risk that a virus like nCoV will spread unchecked. 

Thus far, nCoV has managed to spread as far as it has, simply because of our lack of knowledge stemming from its novel nature. We didn’t know what it was, its duration or incubation, method of transmission, treatment, etc. The more we find out about the virus, the easier it will be to contain it, but there’s no need to complicate this process by stymying knowledge through stigmatization and fear.

Our best protection against this new coronavirus is to practice the usual etiquette when we feel under the weather and wash our hands frequently. It wouldn’t hurt to introduce some compassion and respect into interactions with those around us, too.