Opinion

A Contagion Called Xenophobia

Caution over cruelty in the dawn of a potential pandemic.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Who would guess that the face mask would become the great equalizer? In the morning crowds of people making their way to work, the face mask has obscured both faces and identities. It doesn’t matter who you are, how high your pay grade is, whether you enjoy your job or not, or what politics you subscribe to. The 2019 novel coronavirus is not picky with whom it strikes. That our face masks cover the mouth almost feels like a metaphor for our collective helplessness against an invisible enemy.

And yet, the climate of a pandemic crisis also works in the opposite direction, sharpening the distrust between racial and cultural lines in a new wave of xenophobia. People instinctively become hostile against those who are different, against the foreign, against the “others” perceived as accountable. In this case, it’s been dubbed “Sinophobia,” with the Chinese bearing the brunt of worldwide aversion. Paranoia has only fuelled anti-Asian sentiments in countries that don't even bother to separate Vietnamese from Chinese. 

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Reports from around the world and in the country sound the same. There are Chinese nationals being denied services by cabs and buses, restaurants with signs refusing Chinese diners, and memos discouraging Chinese from showing up for work or school, to implement what is being termed as “self-quarantine,” but which sounds like a mere euphemism for what it implies—“keep away from us.”

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You don't have to be Chinese to feel this wave of xenophobia. Any hint of being of Chinese descent can mark someone as a target for public glare and suspicion. Even other nationalities like Japanese or Korean have found themselves subject to the same discrimination, because in the eyes of the ignorant “all Asians look the same.” In many instances, availing of basic services means having to prove one’s nationality first by speaking fluently in the vernacular with the correct inflections. That such inquests are being carried out even by ordinary citizens is very reminiscent of the climate of wartime conditions.

On one hand, fear is often an effective motivator for caution and action. But how do you separate the threat of the virus from its human carrier? When does one’s right to protect life and health spill over into depriving others of their own rights and dignity? 

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Xenophobia often turns into racism, the latter more associated with attacks on one’s physical features or cultural practices with the intent of eliciting contempt or disgust. Ethnic pejoratives have resurfaced in our vocabulary. The video of a Chinese woman eating bat soup has been shared on social media far too many times to the effect of falsely portraying the Chinese as a people who would eat practically anything without a thought for sanitation or hygiene. In fact, the three-year-old video was not set anywhere in China but in Palau—a nation island in the Pacific where bats are considered a delicacy, pointing out as well that eating bats is a practice found in many other countries, including the Philippines. Furthermore, at the time when the video came out, it had not even been proven that the virus made the jump to humans from bats and more recent genome analysis appears to point elsewhere as the source of the virus.

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When dealing with the unseen and the unknown, fear can be an overriding emotion that can turn even the most hospitable and reasonable of people into xenophobes. Morality and ethics do not trigger survival instincts—uncertainty and crisis do. But what we have to remind ourselves is that xenophobia is an irrational response. We can justify travel bans as a practical measure to contain the spread of the virus, but we cannot justify ostracizing people because of their ethnicity or because they “look” Chinese. Ethnicity has nothing to do with this crisis. The factors in play are biological, geographical—even political in terms of how our governments are responding to it. But the virus itself has no nationality or culture.

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The potent anger against China in the Philippines started long before coronavirus reared its ugly head. We do have a lot to be angry about: the illegal Chinese military buildup in the West Philippine Sea, the Chinese vessel ramming a Filipino fishing boat, the Chinese fishing fleets decimating the local giant clam population, the exploitation of our resources by Chinese mining and logging operations, and the proliferation of prostitution due to the POGO industry. The list can go on. But these are issues we have with their government that have trickled down to impact our view of the people, which has only fueled our fire toward blaming the same faceless millions who are suffering the most from 2019n-CoV. No nation is perfect, and Chinese nationals are hardly the model tourist when they visit our country, but what purpose does xenophobia serve if not to ostracize the people suffering at the hand of their own state’s failure to look after them?  

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Xenophobia, like feelings of fear or anger, exists only in the mind of the perpetrator and cannot be attributed as an inherent quality of the person or the people in question. In the same way that racist slurs about skin color, physical features, or cultural practices are flaws that exist only in the mind of the racist—not in the race itself.

The current crisis warrants a display of equal treatment and compassion for any people or country in the grips of the virus—political, economic, cultural, or religious differences aside. This is perhaps a concept too idealistic or naive for the politically polarized climate of our times, but it is nonetheless a necessary discussion to engage with in asserting our moral compass as a nation. We certainly have reason to be afraid but we should fear more the virus and the incompetent rule of governments—not the people. Irrationality and ignorance are threats that are as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the virus itself.

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It is also prudent to remind ourselves of the human suffering happening in locked-down Wuhan and other affected regions. It is too easy to cast others as strangers that we have no moral obligations to, but if the tables had been turned—or should the virus soon wreak havoc in our own country—it would be more than a jarring reminder for us to realize that if we look past geographic and cultural borders, nations are only made up of families and individuals like us, capable of the same fear and mistrust, and yet also of compassion and sacrifice even in such desperate times when the fight to stay alive can be the only thing that really matters.

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Derik Cumagun
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