Coronavirus spurs on racist reactionaries

Francesca Magalang, Staff Writer

Viral illness does not directly cause racism, but it has given racist people a platform to voice their discrimination. Take the recent outbreak of the coronavirus for example. This epidemic is, particularly in the U.S., a comedy goldmine. Social media users bombard the Internet with jokes that recycle the same punchline: Asian people are contaminated and cannot be trusted.
Swedish YouTube star Felix Kjellberg, better known from his channel PewDiePie, capitalized on this trend in a recent video entitled “I went on a break for 30 days & THIS HAPPENED.”
“Since I was in Japan during the time of the thingy [the coronavirus epidemic], I bought about three boxes of these,” Kjellberg told his viewers, indicating several packages of surgical masks. “What if corona-chan got me?”
Kjellberg is later pictured wearing numerous masks at once, obscuring his ears and most of his face. In doing this, he drastically underplays the severity of the coronavirus by treating one of its primary methods of prevention like an accessory or a toy. Even more distasteful is the blatant mockery of Asian cultures by attaching a Japanese honorific to the name of a disease which originated in China.
The celebrity’s tone-deaf commentary proves entirely unnecessary given the fact that, in the thirty days Kjellberg was out the country and in the time since his return, Sweden has accrued eaxctly one case of coronavirus—a far cry from the 87 confirmed cases in Japan, and the 77,000 in China.
Too many people disregard this as an edgy, harmless trend, but it actually has dangerous implications. Regardless of the intentionality, these jokes instill in the public an irrational fear of foreign invaders, fueling the fires of xenophobia. At times, the jokes tread into eugenics territory, promoting the idea that the Chinese make up a sickly and vulnerable race.
On top of glorifying hateful ideologies, this trend drastically undermines the fatality of the situation. While people lose their lives half a world away, Americans treat it like a spectacle, even going so far as to find humor in a tragedy that does not affect them. That is the most ironic thing about the debacle–they know how unlikely it is that coronavirus will affect them personally, yet their jokes suggest that they are terrified.
There are over 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide, of which more than 2,000 resulted in deaths. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, shows ambiguous symptoms resembling those of fever or the common cold, and they may worsen depending on the patient’s age, sex, or pre-existing medical conditions. Like any disease, it can ruin lives and devastate families when least expected.
Many people think their racist outbursts are justified because they are merely expressing concern for their health. This could not be farther from the truth. It is a fact that, when presented with the threat of illness, people tend to be paranoid, anxious, or uneasy. They will frequently practice personal hygiene or withdraw themselves to minimize the risk of transmission. These responses—the need to self-isolate and a heightened sense of caution—are completely rational in humans, albeit somewhat unhealthy. However, it is not natural or logical for one to become aggressively racist toward another group of people, at which point the illness is no longer perceived as a personal threat, but as a threat to national security.
There is never an acceptable excuse for bigotry, especially when lives are on the line. Ignorance and hatred distracted the world from finding a cure or even the minimum amount of sympathy for those who suffered from the Ebola virus or the AIDs breakout, and millions of innocent lives were lost and exploited because of it. The coronavirus epidemic will soon become a repetition of history if the world’s fear lies more in the people than the disease that kills them.