Coronavirus, Xenophobia and Fear: Dreadful Human Diseases

Mar 11, 2020 by

Humans fear the unknown. 

There is an underlying xenophobia in America and it does not take much to expose it. The coronavirus has become the latest issue that has scraped the thin veneer of paranoia away.

The New York Times reports that for people in the United States with close ties to China, the Wuhan coronavirus utbreak has brought unexpected worry, disappointment, and scrutiny.

The United States State Department has warned Americans to avoid all travel to China due to the “rapidly spreading” coronavirus outbreak. The decision by America and other nations came after the WHO (World Health Organization) called the outbreak “a global public health emergency” in an attempt to get more resources and increase international coordination to fight it. Fear is now spreading as fast as the virus.

Federal officials announced that Americans who were evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the China coronavirus outbreak, will be quarantined for 14 days at a U.S. military base to prevent any spread of the infectious disease. The quarantine is the first in the U.S. in 50 years.

Delta Airlines, a major US airline with many nonstop flights to Shanghai and Beijing, has decided to temporarily suspend all U.S. to China flights beginning Feb. 6 through April 30 due to ongoing concerns related to the coronavirus. American Airlines and United Airlines are doing so as well. While this is a prudent and economically sound decision, it stokes even greater concern that the coronavirus and hence the Chinese/Asian people are to be feared. 

“Some of the xenophobia is likely undergirded by broader political and economic tensions and anxieties related to China, which are interacting with more recent fears of contagion,” said Kristi Govella, an assistant professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.  At a time when China’s rise as a global economic and military power has unsettled its neighbors in Asia as well as its rivals in the West, the coronavirus may be feeding latent bigotry against the people of mainland China.

The Trump administration has ushered in a steady drumbeat of anti-China rhetoric that has heated up the anti-China perceptions across America and the world. Rhetoric that can have dire implications and even deadlier consequences.

Rhetorical poison, as lethal as carbon dioxide gas, is seeping into the public consciousness. We have seen this before.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that codified exactly how much the Chinese were not welcome. People whose labor was used to literally build and connect this country were not wanted.

More recently, in the early 1980s, the Big 3 domestic auto industry, feeling the pinch of foreign competition, experienced a stagnant economy, plant closings, and U.S. layoffs of blue-collar worker. 

At union halls and around U.S. factory towns, signs reading “No Foreign Cars Allowed” and “Don’t Even Think About Parking aForeign Car Here” were incendiary messages that sprouted like weeds on empty factory lots.

Anti-foreign sentiment was at a fever pitch then. I recall a local church carnival where, for one U.S. dollar, you got three hits with a sledge hammer on a foreign (Japanese) car. Anger and hate were being spewed like the black soot spewing from auto-plant smoke stacks. A blame game mentality was setting in, particularly against “Asians” for the economic woes that had beset many in U.S. manufacturing land.

Metro Detroit became ground zero for this anger and frustration where many displaced autoworkers felt that global change was yanking the economic rug out from under them. Far too many heard and saw the hate. But they chose to remain silent.

Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American, became the target of pent up anger and hate fueled from a drunken and enraged Ronald Ebensand his stepson, Michael Nitz, both laid-off autoworkers. Chin was at a bar for his bachelor party when Ebens, mistaking Chin for Japanese, taunted him, blaming him for their plight. The two parties began fighting with Nitz joined in the battle. The fight was stopped and Chin left but outside, Ebens and Nitz caught up to Chin striking him several times with a baseball bat, including a fatal blow to the head.

Two men with a baseball bat killed Vincent Chin 30 years ago. Ignorance coupled with society’s intolerance and misplaced blame were accessories to this murder. We cannot allow anger, hate, prejudice, and misinformation to boil over eventually harming our fellow humans.

Officially, it was a blow to the head that killed Vincent Chin, but it was the ugly rhetoric, tolerated by a complacent society, that set the stage for Chin’s murder.

It has been said that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.

We have to be aware of the prejudices and underlying fear of China and how these latent historical concerns can and do boil over with the slightest provocation and can impact US-China relations for decades to come. 

Clearly, this virus should teach us powerful lessons:

     1) A wall will not prevent an epidemic

     2) What happens in China does not stay in China, and 

     3) Together, we are truly better. 

The China/US relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. We cannot allow a virus of fear and xenophobia to destroy our global relationships at any level.

Let’s work together to fight this dreadful coronavirus and not allow it to create anti-Chinese sentiment that poisons the soul that connects us all to this world.  

Tom Watkins, a former a Michigan state superintendent of schools, state mental health director and president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL. He has been working to build cultural, economic and educational ties with China for nearly 4 decades. He is a sought out commentator on all things China on both sides of the Pacific. Read some of his historical China thoughts here: CHINA US Focus

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