GLOBAL HEALTH EMERGENCY

Xenophobia could derail global response to coronavirus

Heightened prejudice tapping into deep-seated bigotry against China’s relentless march.

In Summary
  • China’s surge as a global economic and military powerhouse has unsettled friends and foe.
  • The handling of the coronavirus has also been shrouded in old-style Chinese secrecy, which made early and decisive action nearly impossible.
Medical staff carry a box at Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.
Medical staff carry a box at Jinyintan hospital, where the patients with pneumonia caused by the new strain of coronavirus are being treated, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.
Image: REUTERS

The birthplace of the revolution that defeated China’s last dynasty and the economic driver of China’s heartland is now the epicentre of a global pandemic. The city of Wuhan has come to symbolise the deadly coronavirus.

The new coronavirus is on the march, spreading rapidly in China and across the world. The latest figures indicate that more than 360 people have died in China and more than 17,205 have been infected worldwide. The first death outside China occurred in the Philippines.

An estimated 5 million people left Wuhan city for the Lunar New Year holiday before Chines officials took measures to contain the spread of the virus. Now fears over the spread of coronavirus have fanned the flames of resentment and discrimination against Wuhan residents. They are untouchable; shunned by hotels, placed under quarantine. The government lockdown in 20 cities across China has quarantined about 56 million people.

 

The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak an international emergency. In China anger is boiling among citizens over the sloppy handling of the outbreak. Globally we are seeing ugly xenophobic reaction against Chinese citizens and those of other east or south-east Asian heritages.

The US has issued a “do not travel” warning to China. About 37 airlines have already cancelled flights to China, until the end of March. Washington also announced a 14-day travel ban on all visitors from China, regardless of their nationality.

While Donald Trump thinks Xi Jinping is a brilliant leader, it is widely believed that his government has bungled the coronavirus response, putting the lives of millions of Chinese at risk and pushing the world to the brink of a deadly pandemic.

Russia has closed its land border with China due to fears of contagion. In Seoul, South Koreans have staged protests calling on their government to ban Chinese people from entering the country.

A French regional newspaper run articles with “Yellow alert” and “New yellow peril” in their headlines. In Japan media have reported “No Chinese” signs put up restaurants. And a hashtag on Twitter #ChineseDon’tComeToJapan has trended in Japan.

China’s surge as a global economic and military powerhouse has unsettled friends and foe. It is likely that heightened xenophobia in the wake of the coronavirus is tapping into the deep-seated bigotry against China’s relentless, unstoppable march to global dominance.

The handling of the coronavirus has also been shrouded in old-style Chinese secrecy, which made early and decisive action nearly impossible. President Xi Jinping’s tight grip on Chinese bureaucracy made it possible to silence doctors and downplay the coronavirus outbreak, putting the lives of 11 million people at risk.

China’s official reflex is to suppress information that might be deemed as discomforting or embarrassing to Xi Jinping. While Donald Trump thinks Xi Jinping is a brilliant leader, it is widely believed that his government has bungled the coronavirus response, putting the lives of millions of Chinese at risk and pushing the world to the brink of a deadly pandemic.

We must condemn the shameful tide of xenophobic reaction against Chinese citizens. At the same time, global leaders should demand greater responsibility and accountability from the Chinese leadership. The abhorrence of Xi Jinping’s China must not paralyse global action to contain a most deadly virus.