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Sunday, March 29, 2020, 21:48
Virus stigmatization stokes insane racism
By Charles Ng
Sunday, March 29, 2020, 21:48 By Charles Ng

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus castigated US President Donald Trump openly for calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus”. Along with the racial epithet were reports about White House officials referring to COVID-19 as “Kung Flu”. Along with the disregard for science are traits of populist politics. This does not bode well in the face of a war waged against mankind by a malignant virus.

Diseases with eponyms resonate most with physicians when they were taught a list of conditions including those as esoteric as Wegener’s Granulomatosis and Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. These diseases were named conveniently after physicians and scientists who discovered or treated them, or simply a location, such as the West Nile Virus. In the year 2011, Wegener’s Granulomatosis was renamed as Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (GPA) because of an overdue expose of the German pathologist Dr Friedrich Wegener’s clandestine association with the Nazis. The disease taxonomy was crowdsourced and peer-reviewed on the principle that the newly minted name should accurately reflect the pathophysiology of the disease. This was one of the few renamed diseases. 

Disease eponyms are so deeply interwoven with medical education and daily clinical practice that any half-baked attempt in renaming them will fail. Others such as Hendra virus, a pathogen discovered by Professor Linfa Wang at Hendra, a small suburb of Brisbane, caused local revulsion for fear of negative perceptions. Unwitting associations with the virus portrayed a bedeviled enclave to outsiders who were barely acquainted with Hendra. These noxious impressions creep unknowingly into other societies and can continue through generations. People in less developed countries, particularly those in Africa, are occasionally browbeaten because of a virus bearing the name of their countries. This aggravates xenophobia and segregation. For such reasons, scientists believe that naming diseases is deterministic from the outset. 

To do justice to this, the WHO published a set of disease-naming guidelines in May 2015 “with the aim to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups”. Specifically, nomenclature should refrain from including geographic locations, people’s names, animal species, food, culture, population, industry, or occupational references. As the agency responsible for global public health events, the WHO is an important arbiter to forestall attempts to name diseases for self-serving means, especially those that incite fear and offend people.

Recently, a 16-year-old American-born Chinese was mocked in Los Angeles for donning a mask. Another Hong Kong student studying in a British university was criticized for the same reason. And a South Korean student was given a black eye for “spreading the virus”. Since the COVID-19 outbreak two months ago, many Asian students reported being bullied in Australia, Germany and other Western countries. Anecdotal experiences of racism were felt, written, recorded on video and circulated on social media. Hurled at them was invective blaming them for “spreading the illness”. More seriously, a family of four Thai people was disfigured in Texas by an American citizen who attempted a grisly murder based on fallacious claims of COVID-19 being spread by Asians. The youngest victim was 3 years old. 

Shockingly, good public-health measures such as wearing a mask, now ubiquitous in Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and the Chinese mainland, which early confronted SARS, attract undue attention from white supremacists who have experienced no such deadly epidemics since the Spanish Influenza outbreak in 1918 — a time before most of us were born. Some privileged people take for granted the advanced medical treatment and economic boom responsible for their stable livelihoods. Without enduring the plight on the ground, they paid lip service from afar to view the system of the developed countries through a parochial lens. 

Often, this means financial disbursements and highbrow analysis that go along with all the condescension. Culture and religion that dictate local human behavior are cast aside. Such is evidenced throughout history: The then powerful Europeans carved up Africa between 1881 and 1914, resulting in everlasting inter-racial conflicts across the continent; the US toppled the Iraqi government in 2003 only to prise a deeper rift of mistrust between the Kurds and other ethnic groups. Blame was then shifted on the corruption of African leaders and the inability of the Iraqi people to form a functional government. Similarly, white supremacy has capitalized on the fear of COVID-19 while expressing xenophobic comments that patently discredit science. Such an attitude is bolstered by finger-pointing on a diplomatic level. That is enough. Listen to science: A genome study of COVID-19 published in Nature argued that the virus is highly unlikely man-made.

The discriminatory term “China Virus” slipped through Hong Kong and Taiwan. A minority there chanted it on the streets and shared it online unabashedly to whip up anti-mainland sentiment. Racism around the world does not differentiate between a Chinese, Korean, Japanese or even a Thai. In addition to defying the truth, the kernel of science, their purpose is amiss — it is baffling how they promoted so vociferously such racial discrimination even at their own peril — an accomplice of self-inflicted harm. And there is nothing worse than those who harbor malice to divide people when it is least needed. Others chided overseas students who returned to their countries. Those who left a place where the outbreak is serious may bring the virus back home, some citizens say, adding that they are selfish and hypocritical. Other citizens lamented that “they were hiding in foreign countries when our home was in crisis, and now they are destroying everything we have safeguarded”. This is a slippery slope we ought to avoid. Why should our nature, as human beings seeking solace, be chastised?

Perhaps, this is a global challenge presented at a felicitous moment to test our strength of human bonds. In unity, we will rise, and the virus will fall. Infighting should stop, and from this, solidarity will emerge. May responsible leaders be rewarded, and bigoted ones go to hell. In history, our valiant efforts will be chronicled, and our naivety will also be judged. Let us brace for this together and flatten the curve.

The author is a licensed doctor in Hong Kong, and a Master of Public Health candidate at Johns Hopkins University.The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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