By Grace Manning ’21
In 21st century America, there is a common misconception that racism and xenophobia are issues that don’t exist anymore or that they aren’t topics so prevalent that they should be discussed on a large scale. However, the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus tells us otherwise. Articles published in newspapers in France are entitled “New Yellow Peril?”, restaurants are posting signs in their windows urging Asian people to go somewhere else to eat, and Chinese university students are feeling targeted and mistreated. This behavior is sparked by a widespread panic and, I would argue, an extremely self-absorbed one. Relative to the rest of the world, Americans are the most equipped to be able to deal with an outbreak like this one. The number of cases in the U.S. has been small, and the areas where the illness is the most concentrated are in China. I think for the most part, while we might argue that we are interested in helping stop a worldwide catastrophe, most of our concern lies within our own borders and within our own personal circles.
Countries on the African continent, however, have real reason for concern. Should the Coronavirus break out in one of these countries and spread quickly, the healthcare systems would be able to do little to stop it devastating populations. But the Coronavirus has been used by some as an excuse to exclude and discriminate against Chinese people, proving that racism is very much still present in our society. Another recent example of such blatant racism is shown in a photo of four young, white climate activists who were attending the World Economic Conference in Switzerland. The photo was cropped by news agencies to exclude Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate change activist. She, naturally, was shocked and hurt by the attempts to “erase a continent,” as she put it in an Instagram post. She believes that this was an example of how the media and the world tend to give African activists the back seat during important events, even though the continent suffers the worst from climate change. While producing only 3% of total world carbon emissions, Africa suffers over 90% of the consequences of climate change and these consequences are very real, very visible, and can be utterly devastating. Nakate wishes to bring to light some of the issues surrounding attempts to muffle African activist voices and to discuss the question of racism as it pertains to the climate crisis.
As for the Coronavirus, the question is, why are we, as a society, so quick to place blame on and to ostracize a country or a people for an illness that is far beyond anyone’s control? I would argue that the answer is a self-serving one. We are concerned for our own well-being in a pandemic situation, and by targeting a group of people and holding them fully responsible, we can feel safer in our own society. But this is an extremely dangerous and utterly incorrect way of looking at the world. It encourages xenophobia and racism which is then excused as being a normal reaction to a crisis like the Coronavirus. Chinese children are being bullied in school, shunned in public, discriminated against, and even targeted because of their origins. All of this because the media is spinning stories that create fear and panic and that encourage xenophobia, when the facts of the situation are often ignored.