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Can we please stop calling it the ‘Chinese virus’?

[March 2020]

What’s the big deal you may ask? Coronavirus, COVID-19, Chinese virus- what’s the difference? Well, there is a big difference. Yes the virus originated in China, but ever since the outbreak of coronavirus in the Wuhan province of China in January, the Chinese community have been pushed into the category of the scapegoat. In the past few weeks many Chinese people or those who are percieved to be Chinese, have been subject to severe racism and discrimination both in the UK and around the world.

In Southampton just last week, three teenagers were arrested for attacking four Chinese residents on the street. Similarly, a few weeks ago in London a Singaporean student was assaulted in Oxford Street in a racially-motivated attack. As well as being physically harmed, Jonathan Mok was verbally abused with the attackers shouting “I don’t want your virus in my country”. This verbal abuse is clearly reminiscent of similar xenophobic Brexit rhetoric we heard last year when people who were not perceived to be British were asked to ‘go back to your country’.

And it’s not just in this country- in America there has been a huge increase in racist attacks towards Asian Americans. In a press conference President Trump defended the use of the phrase ‘Chinese virus’ stating that “it’s not racist at all”. He has since revoked his comments- but the damage was already done. By using this problematic language people can fall into a process of ‘othering’. By viewing the situation through an ‘us vs. them’ lens, one contributes to the notion of Western superiority. Over and over again in history we have seen similar divisive language leading to devastating consequences.

March 12th: Members of the Asian American Commission held a press conference in Boston to condemn racism toward Asian Americans because of coronavirus.

Discrimination, hatred and bigotry is an ever-mutating form of evil. When a terrifying, major world event occurs, such as this, people’s fear latches onto the closest thing possible, looking for something, or someone to blame. It becomes a defence mechanism to manage one’s own anxiety about the virus. We all have these difficult feelings inside but what do we do with them? Sometimes people use ‘logic’ to mask their prejudice - “it is fact that the virus originated in China, therefore the Chinese are to blame”. Whilst this fact may be true, it does not become a justification for the vilification of a whole group of people. Our language can be a major contributing factor in a rhetoric of hate and harmful stereotyping- even if it is just intended as ‘banter’.

The uncertainty and fear surrounding the current climate is justified, but instead of lashing out and blaming others we need to manage our anxiety better by first recognising and acknowledging our feelings. On the surface it may not seem like a big deal to say ‘Chinese virus’ but by changing our language about this pandemic, we can have a significant impact on reducing the othering and blaming that is leading to blatant and often violent racism.

- Talia Pins, Project Coordinator at Stand Up!




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