History shows that the Coronavirus is not the first disease to evoke Anti-Asian unease
In countries across the world, especially Canada, Chinese groups have voiced concerns about Anti-Chinese hatred and discrimination taking root specifically via social media.
Images of Chinese people or other Asians consuming insects, snakes, dogs, or mice frequently circulate on social media or clickbait news stories. The Coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan province, is taking the full blow, being described as some kind of comeuppance for so-called decadent behaviors.
More than 100 years ago in North America white spokespeople in North America had labelled Chinese people as “dangerous to the white,” living in “most unhealthy conditions” with a “standard of morality immeasurably below ours.”
In 1884, the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration was established, to determine the impact of Chinese presence in Canada. The report concluded: “The “Chinese quarters are the filthiest and most disgusting places in Victoria, overcrowded hotbeds of disease and vice, disseminating fever and polluting the air all around.”
Although it is a disturbing situation, it is by no means novel. Throughout history, disease and fears of disease have been closely associated to scapegoated minorities.
Perhaps, the most momentous and well-recorded example of this came with the arrival of the Black Death. When people looked for answers to this deadly plague, the church hierarchy lectured them on how the Black Death was God’s retaliation for their wicked ways. Before long, stories of Jews pouring poisonous powder into wells circulated throughout what is now Germany and France.
What followed was a slaughtering of Jews unprecedented in its magnitude and barbarity. Between 1348 and 1351, hundreds of cities and towns throughout Europe murdered thousands of Jews, with more fleeing to regions with a more tolerant attitude.
However, fears of the pogroms
(Anti-Jewish) riots did not deter the persecutors of Jews from stealing their wealth during the riots.
Bigotry associated with the spread of disease is not linked only to the medieval period. The 1850’s and 1860’s gold rush heralded the largest pre-federation migration of Chinese to Australia in search of fortune.
While Chinese migrants to Australia had been persecuted for decades, outbreaks of yellow fever, typhoid, typhus and diphtheria were linked to the new arrivals. Australian periodical such as The Bulletin, which was read across a broad middle-class, featured articles and cartoons that repeatedly targeted the Chinese.
The new arrivals of Chinese who had come to work on the goldfields were characterized as the primary vector for diseases arriving in Australia. An 1888 carton in the Queensland Figaro a weekly newspaper illustrates diseases being brought into communities through the cramped and unsanitary quarters that most Chinese people were forced to live in.
Such cartoons, it is thought may be in some way responsible for the heavy-handed punitive “White Australia” policy put in place at the beginning of the 20th century, specifically designed to limit non-British migration to Australia, and support the ideal of Australia as being a “purely” white nation.
Diseases do come and go, and are either cured or burn themselves out. Nonetheless, what has
continued over the centuries is a repeated propensity to attack and humiliate outsiders as being somehow responsible for the suffering.
Nothing has changed, the Internet is replete with conspiracy theories, and in the minds of many China remains enigmatic and mysterious making it an easy target for exaggerated perceptions of threat particularly when it comes to infectious diseases.
We must remain focused on the task at hand and do not allow this disease to create further ethnic unease. For far too long the language of disease has been encrypted with underlying racial prejudice.