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Opinion: Drop the corona-racism

Dang Yuan
February 1, 2020

Whenever someone who looks East Asian coughs, they should not automatically be blamed for the China coronavirus outbreak. The stereotype is wrong, and finger-pointing will get us nowhere, says Dang Yuan.

Chinese passengers are checked body temperature by staff wearing mask and rubber glove at the Spring Airlines
Image: picture-alliance/AP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Drama erupted onboard a Lufthansa flight to China on Wednesday when a Chinese passenger started to cough violently at cruising altitude. To make matters worse, he admitted to fellow fliers that two weeks earlier, he'd been in Wuhan — the city at the center of the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite the uproar in the cabin, the captain kept his cool and just kept on flying. The plane landed safely at its destination, and crew and passengers who had sat near the Chinese passenger were tested immediately. A few hours later, there was relief all round when tests for the coronavirus were negative.

Read more: Coronavirus: Everything you need to know

Between vigilance and overreaction

The rapid spread of this potentially deadly virus has clearly unsettled people across the world. The constant media coverage has boosted awareness of the dangers of this outbreak. At the same time, the lines between public vigilance and overreaction have quickly become blurred. All people of East Asian origin are now suspected by some of being carriers of this new virus. In one recent case in Frankfurt, a person was unashamedly asked: "Well, do you have the China virus?"

Anyone who looks East Asian and who has so much as a runny nose is now suspected of having the "China virus" — a term that fails to acknowledge how residents of China are the biggest victims of this outbreak, and how Bejing is making every effort, with unprecedented transparency, to stop the virus from spreading.

A passenger with a face mask checks in for a flight to China at Frankfurt Airport
Many air passengers are wearing face masks for fear of the new coronavirus Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

In China, people are also distancing themselves from the term "Wuhan virus" because it is not the residents of that city that have spawned the disease or the sometimes panicky overreaction. The virus could have appeared anywhere else on earth. In Wuhan, where residents have been advised against leaving their homes, millions of people have shown great discipline and have sacrificed their freedom of movement so that the disease does not spread further. A video circulating online shows residents of one neighborhood communicating by megaphone through open windows as an alternative to meeting in person.

Read more: China's coronavirus epidemic threatens global economy

'Big noses' also vulnerable

The best protection against the virus is regular handwashing — this is the single most important way of reducing your risk. However, there can be no absolute certainty that one will remain free of the virus, especially in a globalized world, where pathogens can travel around as fast as people or goods. Keeping your distance from people just because they look East Asian doesn't offer any additional protection. The coronavirus does not need a visa to enter any country, nor does it measure nose length before it strikes.

Solidarity must be the priority at this time. Before we have accurately traced the origin of the pathogens, blame, panic and racist comments about alleged Chinese eating habits or hygiene standards certainly don't help. The latest studies suggest the coronavirus is no more dangerous than the flu, which strikes many countries annually. So let's put aside the stereotypes, analyze the situation soberly and reasonably and then take pragmatic steps to rid the world of this virus.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine — a race against time

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