Empathy over fear: We must examine our reactions to the coronavirus outbreak in China

Sunny Shen/Staff

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There is now a Chinese joke pertaining to the recent Wuhan coronavirus outbreak: Wuhan people in Wuhan — “stay strong, Wuhan!” Wuhan people in front of you — “get out of my face!” I learned of this joke because when I was on a trip with two friends, they mentioned that one of their friends is from Wuhan. Intuitively, and quite shamefully, I said, “You should stay away from him then.” After they told me the joke as a response to my remark, I started reflecting on external and internal reactions — from both Chinese and non-Chinese people — to the coronavirus outbreak in mainland China.

As a Chinese international student in the States, I realized that a lot of people in the Chinese community here share similar reactions to what I initially felt. Although some are helping patients from afar and donating resources to hospitals, what the majority of us feel is fear. We are fearful for our own lives and the lives of those we love — most of whom are back in China. I see fear in the eyes of my Chinese friends who wear two layers of face masks to school every day. I see fear in those who are avoiding going to any Chinese restaurant or event.

Like most Chinese people outside of Wuhan, people from other countries can only piece together the fragmented information regarding the outbreak through social media, where facts and rumors weave together into an incessant flow of narratives. Official news reports regarding numbers and scientific breakthroughs, posts celebrating the bravery of Chinese doctors, personal essays describing individual experiences and sufferings, rumors listing magical ways of preventing and curing the illness, memes about the causes and effects of coronavirus … The vast amount of information on social media is no doubt amplifying these national and global emotions of fear, helplessness and panic.

The vast amount of information on social media is no doubt amplifying these national and global emotions of fear, helplessness and panic.

Amidst the threat of a global pandemic, instances of racial discrimination and abuse against Chinese citizens and immigrants are spreading around the world — much more rapidly than coronavirus. As scientists have pointed to bats as a possible virus carrier, many have expressed disgust toward Chinese food, accusing Chinese people of deserving the epidemic and causing a global pandemic.

“Because of some folks in China who eat weird (foods) like bats, rats, and snakes, the entire world is about to suffer a plague,” read one popular tweet. Comments under racist posts like this mostly echo each other in their xenophobic contents, expressing prejudice toward Chinese people as a whole. These comments ignore the fact that only a small number of people in China eat wild animals and that the source of the virus has not been 100% confirmed. By doing so, they follow a long history of discourse that blames victim populations for the threat of infectious disease, which often justifies political responses that undermine human rights. They exemplify the long-standing racism against Chinese people that has never really faded away.

While some people outspokenly express racism, many are unconsciously buying into it as a result of media sensationalism and their irrational fear. In a deleted post by University Health Services at UC Berkeley, xenophobia — “fear about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings” — is listed as one of the normal reactions to the coronavirus outbreak.

On the Columbia Confessions page on Facebook, a student confessed that they have made a conscious effort to not talk to any Chinese people and asked, “Does that make me a bad person if I just want to not die?” Similarly, many of my Chinese friends in the States are — perhaps to a lesser degree — also filled with fear and want to avoid people of their own descent. For example, several of them avoided going to Oakland Chinatown or any Chinese restaurants.  Local pharmacies, in places such as New York, are running out of face masks because of concerns about contracting coronavirus from mainly Chinese immigrants.

My intent is not to criticize people who react in a racist way — many people have already done a great job at rebuking this global spread of racism. Instead, I want to call for a public recognition of and reflection upon the irrational fear present in reactions — those of people living outside of China, both Chinese and non-Chinese. My questions to everyone are: Where do our fears come from? Where do our fears lead us? And what should we do with our fears?

There is a thin line between reasonable fear and irrational fear, the latter of which leads to xenophobia.

Fear is avoidance. Fear is othering. Fear is a differentiation between “me” and “you.” There is a thin line between reasonable fear and irrational fear, the latter of which leads to xenophobia. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared the current risk to the American public as low, those of us who live in the States need to reflect upon the actual sources of our fear, insecurity and panic.

These fears are often rooted not in facts and reality, but instead in our perceptions and presumptions. On a global scale, the widespread tendency to equate Chinese with coronavirus (including the use of “virus chinois,” or “Chinese virus,” by several French media outlets) is an illustration of irrational fear caused by media sensationalism, reckless imagination and, sometimes, deep-rooted racism.

After recognizing the irrationality in our own reactions, we should combat our fears with compassionate empathy. This process requires us to actively probe into the truth and refrain from passively accepting rumors and indulging ourselves in speculative outcomes. It calls for us to reflect upon the values we share with ordinary people who are currently suffering from the outbreak, whether physically or emotionally — such as truth, happiness, love and benevolence. Sure, compassionate empathy is often considered ideal. But this is what we should all strive for during a global crisis.

In the very beginning of 2020, the red lanterns associated with Lunar New Year and its jubilation have instead become signs of warning and threat. Major Chinese cities have virtually become ghost towns as people stay home in fear of contagion. But China is much more than a symbol of coronavirus, and those affected are much more than mere numbers. As fear and panic permeate society, we should all ask ourselves what responsibilities we have as global citizens. Love for humanity. Love for Wuhan.

Contact Raina Yang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rainayanglw.