„Just don’t come to EU”
”Thank you, but we don’t need your support”
”Stay away from us. Dirty and filthy.”
”You are the ones that got us in this mess… eating cats, dogs, snakes, bats… go away”
”You skint-eyed are to blame, disgusting.”
These are just some of the comments from our fellow citizens on a video of support from China, where Chinese in Croatian jerseys send their support.
Even before COVID-19 came to Europe, Chinese restaurants and shops were almost empty. What used to be one of the most popular forms of exotic cuisine, became a potential nest of diseases overnight. As if behind the kitchen door lies the hell of Wuhan, where feathers fly and cats sprint around. Put in culinary terms: as if piled prejudices about Easterners being barbarians were simmering in a pot and in a moment someone heightened the heat, they ran amok and spilled over.
In a short period hundreds of Asian people in USA reported verbal and physical assaults. Calling names, spitting while yelling ”There, now you have Coronavirus!”, hitting, etc. Maybe the most vivid example of the class-blindness is the one where a man verbally assaults an Asian woman who is collecting plastic bottles from the trash: ”That’s why you have the fuckin virus! Just keep digging through the garbage, you fucking idiot!”. The man who recorded it admitted he was the one yelling, frustrated because he had just lost his job.
Chinese people, go back to Japan!
Speaking of ”yellow culprits”, let’s mention the real ones: the media that spreads ‘fake news’ and sensationalist headlines, amplifying mass panic. Using the ‘censorship through noise’ method, they tear-gassed the people with so many pieces of information, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and rumors. In the end, nobody knew what’s true and false anymore. It’s easier to manipulate the ones who are scared.
Viral video of a Chinese woman eating a bat soup came in handy as petrol on a fire. But no one bothered to check: it was a Chinese travel vlogger Wang Mengyun who tried out one of the most popular dishes on her journey to Palau four years ago. The second video is of a walk through the ‘wet market’ with its bats, dogs, snakes, etc. – it wasn’t even recorded in Wuhan, but the market in Indonesia.
Of course, this doesn’t change the fact those markets are like time bombs. But still, we can wonder how many ‘fake news’ on social media we are absorbing, whether consciously or unconsciously, on an everyday basis, and how it shapes our stereotypical, sometimes even racist generalizations about others.
”We’ve always used race as an organizing principle to define problems in the economy, problems in the culture, problems in the political domain. When there’s a pandemic or any kind of health crisis, our existing ideas about race naturally shape how we process and frame the situation. Our views about race have always colored our views about who is safe or who is contaminated, or who is most likely to be a disease carrier or a disease spreader. The process for making these kinds of decisions has never been objective in the way we like to believe”, explains Natalia Mona a professor of history and American studies at the University of Southern California.
During times like these, it’s easier to blame Others as they are visible carriers of the virus.
Some commentators persistently called the virus ”Chinese flu”, and conservative US politicians like Kevin McCarthy or Mike Pompe used the term ‘Chinese’ or ‘Wuhan’ Coronavirus. Donald Trump addressed the virus ‘foreign’, but after furious backlash on Twitter he wrote we should ”totally protect Asian Americans”. Weijia Jiang, CBS reporter says she heard jokes about ”Kung-flu” in the White house.
While in Croatia the anti-Asian sentiment usually doesn’t get any bigger than grudging over China imported goods or poor jokes about ”yellow” tourism (although 20% of our GDP depends on tourism), the USA have a long history of China-related stereotypes which was often backed up with ideological and geostrategic conflicts.
Historically, diseases and weaknesses were always easier to justify with racial inferiority rather than class relations – some examples are just too obvious, so let’s stick to the health department. In the year 1900, there was a plague outbreak in the city of Honolulu. Without hesitation, local Chinatown was first shut down and later destroyed. It was a belief that immigrants are fertile ground for all kinds of diseases. A similar thing happened a decade later with Chinatown in Nevada, during the ‘cleansing’ process.
Racism in latex gloves
The Atlantic’s article ”Why Trump Intentionally Misnames the Coronavirus” mentions the research by American writer and activist Susan Sontag. She wrote books called ”Illness as Metaphor” and ”AIDS and Its Metaphors” where she describes a various understanding of illness through history and notices how the image of an illness and a foreigner both lie on a concept of wrong/outsider.
Syphilis, for example. When it broke out in the 15th century, there was an urge to label this terrible disease as foreign: Italians called it the French disease, French called it German, Japanese called it Chinese, etc. This pattern of shifting blame by giving it other nations’ names continued with the Russian flu, Spanish flu…
What’s interesting is that the Spanish flu didn’t get its name because it appeared there, or even caused the biggest damage. The reason lies in the war censorship of WWI. While other countries didn’t report on the disease because it would affect the army morale, Spain didn’t participate in the war and therefore had more press freedom. This transparency backfired on them when everyone started calling the flu ‘Spanish’ (even though allegedly it was ‘born in the USA’). And yes, Spaniards called it the French illness.
Next: AIDS. Its first name was ”gay-related immune deficiency” (colloquial: gay plague, gay cancer and similar). In the 1980s when the ”war on AIDS” started, the first suspects were homosexuals and immigrants from Haiti. After they were fired from work and socially isolated, doctors figured out that Haiti immigrant population was too small to be a threat, so they were finally taken off from the ”high risk” blacklist. However, the damage was already done.
The Chinese-hunt that we see today is similar to the one during the SARS epidemic in 2003. Because of the sloppy media approach based on rumors, numerous Asian restaurants and shops were closed – even in virus-free Chinese quarters. Toronto showed the other side of its multicultural face. We also witness some tragicomical events like Taiwaneseare walking the streets with ”We are not Chinese” signs or one of the biggest Croatian news websites using random Chinese for its ”professional” report. The literal title was ”Chinese man explained for us…” as if his “Chineseness” makes him an expert for virology. Attacked by #Yellowalert racist panic, the Chinese had to defend themselves with an ”I am not a virus” campaign.
Ironically, the health minister of Thailand recently complained about how Western tourists don’t take care of their behavior while on a trip – which sabotages the process of stopping the pandemic. He reminds that the masks Asians usually wear on their trips are for protection and a gesture of solidarity toward others, but the Westerners are not taking them seriously. ”Unbelievable Europeans” refuse to wear masks even when they are offered for free. Ministers’ solution was to kick them out of the country. He apologized for his politically incorrect sally, claiming he was provoked. ”We expected respect and cooperation in mitigating the outbreak from them, not slapping our hands away or looking at us in a demeaning way”, he explained.
But, to get back to our yard: the way Trump talks about COVID-19 today is sad not only because it reminds us of familiar stigmatizing and America’s famous treatment of ”visible” immigrants. It also shows the complete incapability of solving the problem. While he is mocking China, the focus of Corona moved to the West and is not going away. So, while the epidemy in China is, according to recent information, under control now, Trump’s solution is to buy off the vaccine from Germany. Meanwhile in Europe, mayors across Italy are walking through their cities and yelling at people to go home, and our neighbor president Vučić publicly talks about his brilliant plan: lying to Germans about the number of respirators.
Made in China?
Today’s smoldering anti-Asian sentiment is bred on distrust and disgust with so-called ”wet markets” as well as unhygienic conditions that life in China and the Far East is usually associated with but covered up by the mystic authoritarian communist government. Even though scientists are trying to find the exact cause of the problem, these attempts are covered with blankets of media’s created repulsion with Chinese ”culture”, supported by already mentioned videos and rumors. The results that we have now imply that the problem lies in mixing meat of wild and domesticated animals. The virus, prone to mutation, can jump from animals to people and spread further.
It’s funny to mention how today we talk about Eastern markets like they are the last circles of hell, but when traveling, many Western tourists like to take the who-will-eat-the-grossest-thing challenge. We should, therefore, cool our heads and try to understand the purpose and the reasons for its existence (and no, it’s not only the local blindness for the light of our divine technological triumph). These markets are often the only outlet for small farmers in rural parts of China. They can not afford the middlemen. Also, it’s the source of fresh, organic food for the local population. Let’s explore that for a little bit.
Let them sell bats
Peter Li, professor, and China Policy Specialist gave a detailed socio-economical explanation of the situation: during the liberalization of the Chinese market fifty years ago, responsibility for meat distribution was transferred from the state to individuals or private companies. Since most of bigger companies at the time had a monopoly on the production of ”regular” food (wheat, chicken, beef, pork), small farmers partially turned to hunt and sale of wild animals (snakes, rats, turtles, etc.) for which they got more money. State quietly supported this so it wouldn’t have to deal with hungry and poor farmers. What started as a means for survival turned into a profitable business, and eventually extended into an illegal zone. This was justified with the fake belief that the meat of endangered animals is – healthy. The price of the meat would get higher if the animal was killed in front of the buyer. That meat was then considered healthy and fresh.
What’s important to keep in mind is this: most of the ”common” people in China don’t eat wild animals. It’s the privilege of a minority that can afford this luxury, made possible by the market, that is – small farmers attempt to save their jobs by pleasing the demands of customers.
As for the infamous bats – they are nothing new in countries of Pacific and Asia, Central Africa and South America. Most of the Chinese people won’t even see one in their lifetime since it’s not a traditional dish.
Yes, China is one of the most famous countries in the world when it comes to exotic cuisine. It’s also an inspiration for master chefs like Jamie Oliver who visited one of those wet markets when they were still just an Oriental touristy wet dream. Stories of perverted culture don’t hold water: meat of exotic animals, uncommon food around the world and its consummation depend on climate, biodiversity, religious customs, socially constructed understanding of luxury and taste, etc.
Let’s take a look at some of them:
- fertilized developing egg embryo (Filipines)
- sheep milk cheese that contains live insect larvae (Italians until EU said no)
- tuna eyeballs (Japan)
- head of a sheep – all of it (South Africa)
- frog smoothie (Peru, Bolivia)
- squirrel brain (Kentucky, USA – you won’t find it in KFC, the enthusiasm dropped low after discovering it has mad-cow-disease-like potential)
- jellied moose nose (Canada)
- creamy fungused corn and tacos with worms (Mexico)
- bat paste (Thailand)
- alligators (USA)
- fried tarantulas (Cambodia)
- grasshoppers (from Israel to the East)
- cat poo coffee (Indonesia – thanks, Instagram)
- Hakarl – fermented, dried shark (a specialty from Island with ammonia-like smell – or, as Anthony Bourdain calls it: ”the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten”)
- raw frozen whale skin and blubber + ‘stinkheads’, fermented fish head (Alaska)
- outside out sheep stuffed with rocks (Mongolia)
- camel, kangaroo, penguin…
As for the unquestionable problem of animal torture in China, let’s keep in mind the size of the land and the fact most of its residents don’t participate in this. Things have, however, rapidly changed in the last two decades. In 1990 there were barely any animal rights and protection organizations. Today, mostly young urbanites are joining hundreds of such organizations, demanding laws that will punish animal abusers.
So, this is no time for moral panic nor cultural flatulence, but joint, solidary actions to find an exit an make sure these scenarios don’t happen again. China made a decision to temporarily close markets with wild animals, but some problems remain unsolved: this move will leave families in rural areas without income and source of food. If it becomes permanent, the black market could go wild.
Chinese, yet worldly
World Health Organisation warned against naming viruses after geographic locations since it does more harm than good, creating more stigma than the disease itself. It’s not about covering the eyes of public or fake political correctness, but it’s also not about giving up on our joint political responsibility by thinking it’s ”Chinese problem” (like some did when the epidemy started). It’s about understanding the complex reasons behind pandemic, and they are not geographical crib of the virus. They are socio-economical problems that conceived it: poor health care system, enormous class differences, rapid urbanization and polarization between developed and undeveloped areas, the global industry of food (which is problematic on more levels – pandemic is just one of the consequences next to the pollution for example).
In the end, the solution to the crisis will be displayed in the same light. The virus made it clear which factor is the one that, more than any other, makes us truly vulnerable. It’s clear who has to tighten the belt and who is planning an attack on labor laws; who is risking health by standing on the ”first-line” for crumbles, and who is taking his share from a couch; who is lying in an overcrowded public hospital, and who is getting the treatment in a private clinic; who is fighting over toilet paper, and who can’t decide in which house to isolate.
The sooner down-and-outers of the West realize the problem is not in the down-and-outers of the East and vice versa, but in the institutional blows of the ruling establishment, we will be one step closer to systematic, rather than cosmetic solution to the problem.