No, the virus didn't make us racist. It just exposed us
Xenophobia is reaching new heights and spreading faster than the virus itself.
China, along with the rest of the world, is struggling to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, with infections closing in on the 70,000-mark and fatalities crossing the 1,500-mark. Yet, tales of solidarity, courage and fortitude abound. Communities bond together in times of crisis, which brings succour to humans in distress. The chant of Wuhan jiayóu (Wuhan, keep going) has become a rallying war cry against despair and depression in the once-bustling capital of China's Hubei province. At around 8pm local time, in-quarantine residents of Wuhan's high-rise apartment blocks shout slogans of support to their neighbours. The solemn example of community solidarity is no different from what we saw during the Kerala floods in 2018 or the more recent Australian bushfires. Crisis tends to bring out the best in some of us.
Unfortunately, the virus-fuelled crisis also seems to be bringing out the worst in some of us. Xenophobia is reaching new heights and spreading faster than the virus itself.
Forwarded 'jokes' and social media memes seem to place the burden of blame for the origin of the virus on the residents of Wuhan in particular and China in general. The 'Chinese eating bat soup' viral video and its upshots have become emblematic of the Sinophobia that is fast gaining ground across the world. Despite videos and exceptional reportage of the very agonising struggles of the citizens of Wuhan - typified by the echoes of jiayóu - people with Asian features have become unwitting targets of discrimination and abuse.
Racism and discrimination, however, have always been around. Humans have always discriminated against those who don't look like them. Biases and prejudices against ethnicities and communities are deep-rooted. We'll all agree that talking about all Indians as dirty or all Egyptians as bad drivers or all people of colour as criminals is downright deplorable. And yet, bigotry continues to gain ground across the world.
People of over 200 nationalities live and work in a harmonious UAE, where cases of racism are limited. But news from certain other quarters isn't so heartening. Baseless rumours have negatively affected children, workers, families and businesses in several schools, offices, malls and Chinatowns. An Insta post of a well-established university in the West Coast of the US seemed to be justifying xenophobic reactions to Asian students as 'common' and 'normal' before a social media backlash forced it to delete it and post an apology.
Last week, the World Health Organisation finally gave the disease caused by the 2019-nCoV virus a name: COVID-19. The WHO has clear policies for deciding a disease's nomenclature. It can't refer to people, groups of people, or geographical locations, which can be stigmatising. Despite all that care and policies, it's almost a given that Wuhan residents will, for at least some time to come, be associated with the virus and the stigma that comes with it. Big pharma needs to find a cure for and ways to stop the spread of COVID-19 fast. But we - you and I - must find it within ourselves to stop the more-rapidly spreading virus, the virus of racism.