Racism in the Time of a Pandemic

Racism in the Time of a Pandemic

According to public records, China formally informed the World Health Organization (WHO) about the coronavirus on 31st December 2019. However, the public majority didn’t begin to hear about the virus until much later, by which time the New Year was already in full swing. The virus was initially classified as a health problem and only declared an epidemic on March 11. By then it had become crystal clear that this was an issue that should be taken much more seriously. It was more than ‘another health problem’ and rapidly demonstrated alarming implications socially, economically as well as politically. Of the social implications, one stands out above the rest– the issue of race and racism.

Put simply, as the COVID-19 virus spread like wildfire across the globe, so havethe cases of racism. In many cases, this manifests as acts of mischief generally directed towards the Chinese populace as a whole, but in other instances, aimed at people of Asian descent. Now as much as these prejudicial acts are uncalled for, they have quickly gained ground; ranging from instances of racial bias to outright criminal deeds such as assault and robbery and attempted murder.

While many of these are being perpetrated by average-minded individuals whom you could argue know no better, political attempts at the formalization of these practices (by way of statements) seems to be underway. One of the most prominent issues raised by the current pandemic as far as racism goes is the question of an appropriate label for the virus.

The WHO in a bid to lay the matter to rest, dubbed the virus COVID-19 derived from ‘Corona Virus Disease 2019’. When this announcement was made, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO explained the rationale: “Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing”.

Regardless, people across the globe fueled by racism, genuine righteous indignation or both, have insistently referred to the virus as the ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘the Wuhan Virus’. To some, this label is not a matter of racism but very simply a question of fact. The reasoning here is that since this virus did in fact originate from Wuhan in China, referring to it as anything but amounts to an inaccurate representation of facts. The most popular proponent of this view is President Donald Trump and from all indications, his view won’t be changing anytime soon.

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Now for most Westerners, the issue here is clear-cut; calling it the “Chinese Virus” is racist and inexcusable. For Africans however, the matter isn’t as clear and I will tell you why. First off, one of the worst viruses we have grappled with in these modern times remains the Ebola virus and it was named after the Ebola River which runs through the town where the virus was first discovered in Congo. Also, the Lassa virus which caused the very deadly Lassa fever was named after Lassa town in my native Nigeria where the disease was first discovered.

Ebola recovery commitment in Liberia. Credit: USAID.

To date, those names are used not just by laymen or ignorant mischief makers but also by all institutions, including the WHO. This continued usage demonstrates to many Africans that the WHO either deems the use of these labels reasonable or is not necessarily concerned with stigmatization where the African continent is concerned. So, when the WHO proceeds to coin a name for the extant virus unconnected to its place of origin, Africans find it all strange and can’t help but wonder: Isn’t this new-found sensitivity exhibited by WHO influenced by the fact that China is a major world power?

This naming debate rages on because it is Western issue. It has become another tool in the political war between America’s Left and Right on the one hand, and America and China on the other hand. Would WHO have been as mindful if the virus had originated from yet another part of Africa, say the Nile? Unlikely wouldn’t you say? Oh wait; there is already a West Nile Virus. So, while the rest of the world might have viewed Trump’s use of “Chinese Virus” and “Wuhan virus” as racist, you can understand why it was regarded in various African quarters as activism at its best.

Now this stance is naturally being fostered by the widespread acts of racism exhibited by the Chinese authorities towards black people in their country during this pandemic. Following the fall in the number of COVID-19 cases in China, Chinese authorities for some reason decided that the danger was now posed by black people in their cities. What followed moved many Africans to tears. Black people were chased out of their homes in China and prohibited from getting new accommodation. People who made videos of these incidents received threatening visits from the Police and McDonald’s posted a notice stating that they would not serve black customers as they were believed to be carriers of the virus. All these were done with the support of the Chinese government since the orders were enforced by the Chinese police.

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My lecturers back in law school taught me two very important maxims of equity; “He who comes to equity must come with clean hands” and “He who seeks equity must do equity”. As far as I can see, the World Health Organization alongside Chinese authorities have attended this issue with somewhat tainted hands. Nobody wants to look at the foregoing reasons but, I think it would be the height of hypocrisy not to acknowledge these shortcomings.

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Is this then a justification for racism? Absolutely not. It is easy to say that COVID-19 should be called ‘the Wuhan virus’ because, well, that is where it came from but when all is said and done, I feel this would be the easy way out. Same goes for the beliefs of some Africans that the racial prejudices fostered on the Chinese at this time ‘serves them right’ for how they treated blacks. No one deserves to be treated with racial bias and insisting otherwise pretty much sums up the ‘eye for an eye’ law of retaliation rule. The only purpose here would be to continually perpetuate the tacit racism and bias that has brought us to where we are today.

The injustice we refuse to speak about today can only form the basis for more injustice tomorrow because; an eye for an eye will eventually leave everyone blind. Think of these, instead, as important lessons on why we should all strive to do better. This is the time for us to collectively condemn such acts of racism. We have an old proverb in my community and it loosely translates as “the slave who laughs when another slave receives a shabby burial should remember that his/her own day will come”. While it may be an issue for “developing nations” or “minorities” or “Asians”, there is no reason to believe that the next virus will not come from a mostly white, deeply conservative state somewhere in the United States.

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Feature image by cottonbro.

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