AFTER THE spread of the novel coronavirus, anti-Chinese sentiment has grown worldwide. More than 600 thousand people have signed the Blue House online petition requesting travel bans on Chinese visitors, and social media sites have been bombarded with racist vitriol and hate comments. Even bigoted expressions like “Yellow Alert” and “Coronavirus, made in China” made headlines of the foreign newspapers, aggravating Sinophobia—fear or hatred against Chinese nationals. The uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus has spawned not only Sinophobia but also a multitude of dangerous beliefs that may prove even more damaging than the virus itself.
The bat soup calumny
On January 23, Daily Mail featured the video titled “Fears of coronavirus may be linked to contaminated bat soup” which went viral and soon recorded 1.8 thousand shares. In the video, Wang Mengyun, a Chinese travel vlogger, devours a dish of bat soup with smiles on her face. “The bat tastes very fresh, like chicken meat,” she excitedly says.
After the bat was recognized as the most probable carrier of the novel coronavirus, xenophobic chatter about Chinese people’s sense of hygiene grew morbidly. People outwardly blasted Wang for her unsanitary dietary habits, and mistakenly propagated the rumor that the virus originated from eating bats. Wang, after receiving death threats, had to make public apologies for her ignorance.
What many people have overlooked is the fact that there is a whole lot of actual context missing here; Wang filmed this video three years ago at a restaurant in the small archipelago of Palau in the Pacific Ocean to introduce the lives of the native people there***. While the video technically had nothing to do with Wuhan and its people, as an article on The Guardian pinpoints, it “created a narrative that appealed to a western audience’s racist fascination with Chinese appetites.” This video which has sparked debates on Chinese people’s exotic dietary habits was later debunked, but not very surprisingly, the corrected versions of the articles failed to pick up much attention as the original ones have. The real truth behind this disinformation was not of people’s interest because the way that Daily Mail framed the video was, albeit blatantly misleading, highly compelling. To be frank, it only confirmed our cultural bias that we used to have about Chinese people.
The vicious conspiracy theories
On January 26, The Washington Post published another article speculating the origin of the virus. This time, it was a conspiracy theory that the virus “may have originated in a lab linked to China’s biowarfare program****.” Danny Showman, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, revealed the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s intimate connection with Beijing’s bioweapons program, alluding to the possibility of the clandestine laboratory’s existence.
Despite follow-up articles by BBC and other reputable news agencies refuting his argument for being groundless, people turned to misleading conspiracy theories and wrote hate comments on social networking sites like Reddit, Tiktok, and Twitter. Some Reddit users have gone even further and accused Jewish communities and the U.S Military of being directly involved in creating and spreading the coronavirus*****.
Misinformation is spread and mutated easily at times of public emergency but once created, it becomes uncontrollable and poses much threat, just like the virus itself. Although it is still unclear where the virus has truly originated from, people start to embrace radical opinions regarding its origin, instead of accepting the epidemic information revealed by the authorities. Meanwhile, it is a clear defamation against Chinese people and its national dignity to blindly stigmatize them based on such unfounded claims.
Need for empathy
Currently, in Wuhan, for every 10 thousand patients, there are only 2 physicians******. Wuhan’s doctors are overwhelmed by the influx of patients while most hospitals are in desperate short of supplies, even the protective gear for the medical staffs. Wuhan citizens have released videos on Tiktok showing the dire conditions in hospitals; many of them returned home with empty hands because there were no more wards and medical toolkits left to verify confirmed cases.
Even the doctors at the frontline of war against the virus are losing their lives. Dr. Li Wenliang, the first whistleblower who revealed the outbreak, recently died of the coronavirus, and his family couldn’t even say farewell to their beloved son due to the complicated quarantine procedure.
The plethora of reports on death tolls and cases of fearmongering have made us highly restless and defensive. However, what we have ignored, blinded by anxiety and fear, may be the regrettable situation within China. Misinformation has misled people to lose not only the sense of logic to distinguish fact from rumors but also the warm heart to show empathy for our global neighbors.
*This article was written in early February before a surge of Corona-19 cases in South Korea.
**Infodemic: A surfeit of information making it more difficult to come up with solutions to a problem
****The Washington Post
*****Anti-Defamation League (ADL)
******The Business Insider