As journalists and public health agencies track the spread of the coronavirus, popular narratives about the illness have taken a dark turn into anti-Asian racism.
Surrounding the now-global outbreak is the hateful myth that the coronavirus is a uniquely Chinese illness. Media outlets like Business Insider have pointed to individual accounts from Asian Americans saying that they’ve experienced discrimination and mistreatment as a result of these myths, while others point to viral social media posts mocking the virus’s spread using hurtful anti-Chinese stereotypes.
One source of these misconceptions is the currently unconfirmed theory that the virus was first transmitted to humans at the Huanan Discount Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, based on reports from the Chinese government. Some have taken the theory as an opportunity to blame Chinese diets and ridicule their eating habits.
In fact, scientists have no clear idea yet about where the coronavirus originated. Some studies suggest that it was first transmitted to humans via bats, while others think it came from snakes, both of which might have been sold at the Huanan market.
Other research, however, casts doubt on whether the coronavirus was transmitted at the market at all. A January study published in The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, found that a substantial number of early patients had no link to Huanan.
On top of being factually dubious, these narratives lack cultural self-awareness. American dietary habits that seem normal to us — like eating a basket of deep-fried factory-farmed chicken parts — likely look strange to other cultures. The mere fact that other culinary traditions eat different animals does not itself lead to illness.
Worse, they traffic in casual cruelty, pinning a dangerous and unanticipated outbreak on an entire culture. For Chinese expats and Americans with Chinese heritage, many of whom are concerned about the virus and have families abroad, such cruelty adds awful insult to injury.
More than just interpersonal bias, these racist misconceptions have already led to damaging policy choices that needlessly disrupt millions of people’s lives. The Trump administration, for instance, has banned travel to the U.S. by any foreign national who’s been to China in the last 14 days.
The World Health Organization directly advises against travel bans like these. They warn that because bans disrupt travel plans and stifle economic activity, they create an incentive to hide exposure and illness. These incentives make tracking the spread of the virus more difficult, creating hidden risks that cause more damage than the ban might have prevented.
Rather than taking thoughtful steps to study and contain the coronavirus, Trump’s decision instead ties the virus to Chinese nationality itself, a deeply xenophobic notion.
Far from being harmless, these reactions to the coronavirus are a serious threat to the well-being of huge numbers of people. Rather than jumping to ignorant conclusions, we should be thoughtful and informed in our approach to this global outbreak.
Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.