COVID-19: racism, robot in Times Square and Chinese proverbs

A Chinese man at Bryant Park in New York City, on February 8, 2020, spread a message to counter racism in the wake of the deadly virus that emanated from China. Photo: Sujeet Rajan

NEW YORK – The pandemic Coronavirus has a new innocuous and ineffable name, COVID-19 – as termed by the WHO. It seems like one of those numerical names given to newly discovered stars millions of light-years away. The change in name, to dispel any notions of people, places or animals associated with the disease, will, however, not be enough to dampen the soaring uneasiness of mass fatalities occurring across the globe. It’s also unlikely to curb rising racial animosity towards Chinese, or Asian-looking people.

The number of daily deaths from Covid-19 is ominous. By the end of Monday, the Chinese government said, 1,016 people had died from it – an increase of 108 from the previous day, reported The New York Times. The number of confirmed infections in China also grew, to at least 42,638 from about 40,000 a day earlier.

New York City, home to the largest Chinese-origin population in the United States, has till now almost miraculously avoided an actual confirmed case of the disease. The city’s Department of Health identified a sixth person to be tested on Saturday, after they cleared five cases, reported AmNY.

While the American economy remains unscathed, stocks continue to boom, there’s a sense of wary trepidation growing. The Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell on Tuesday warned Congress that the disease could hurt the global economy. The only consolation is that he didn’t use the word ‘decimate’. But the thought probably lurks in the background.

Sneezing, coughing, runny noses are now a matter of concern and frowned upon, especially in public places. Alarming too is the number of racially tinged attitudes and behavior emerging against people of Chinese-origin, in America, and elsewhere. And like all Brown folks from Asia were clubbed together for xenophobia in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the new ethnic pariah community in the US is now Chinese folks, or those who look Chinese. Go figure how many nations that include.

The Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line are now denying people with passports from China, Hong Kong, and Macao; some storefronts in Asia have no “No Chinese” signboards up. MarketWatch quoted Sam Phan, a master’s student at the University of Manchester, who wrote in the Guardian: “This week, my ethnicity has made me feel like I was part of a threatening and diseased mass. To see me as someone who carries the virus just because of my race is, well, just racist.” He added: “As an east Asian I can’t help but feel more and more uncomfortable. On the bus to work last week, as I sat down, the man next to me immediately scrambled to gather his stuff and stood up to avoid sitting next to me.”

An online petition signed by parents in one school district in Ontario, Canada, asked the school board to request parents whose children or whose families have recently returned from China “to stay at home and keep isolated for a minimum of 17 days for the purpose of self-quarantine.”

The Washington Post quoted Tevinh Nguyen, a senior at Arizona State who is president of the Asian/Asian Pacific American Students’ Coalition, saying he and others are worried about those who are “using this public health rhetoric to justify xenophobia.”

Arizona State kept its normal academic schedule despite a widely publicized online petition that urged the university to cancel classes because students were worried about the coronavirus, reported the Post.

Some schools have made missteps. Officials at the University of California at Berkeley apologized last month after the campus health center shared a handout in which xenophobia was listed as a “normal reaction” that some people might experience during the health crisis. The handout sparked widespread outrage.

“Stop normalizing racism,” a molecular virologist named Dustin Glasner, who is Asian-American, and who earned a doctorate at UC-Berkeley and is now a scholar at UC-San Francisco, wrote on Twitter.

Academic experts say worries about the coronavirus can feed racial stereotypes that have long plagued not only Asian visitors and immigrants in the United States, but also Asian-Americans, reported the Post.

“The notion of a disease originating in a faraway place in which people share the same ethnicity – that has been a trope in the Asian-American experience since Day One,” said Jason Oliver Chang, director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. He said campus communities must be vigilant to defend students against incidents of racism that might arise in a climate of ignorance and fear. “It’s a combustible situation,” he said.

“Xenophobia has always targeted us, but the coronavirus has created new waves of racist rhetoric online, in schools and on our campuses,” said Shelley Shin, executive director of the East Coast Asian American Student Union.

Kiera Butler, writing in Mother Jones, pointed out that it’s well documented that the poor bear the brunt of viral disease outbreaks. Not just ethnic minorities.

A 2016 CDC analysis of trends in seasonal flu, for example, found that people who live in high-poverty neighborhoods were twice as likely to be hospitalized for flu than those in low-poverty communities. There’s also good reason to believe that doctors might be more likely to prescribe medicine to affluent people: a 2014 study of 56 million people in the American Journal of Public Health found that people in the two highest income categories were about twice as likely as their lower-income counterparts to get the antiviral drug Tamiflu, Butler wrote.

A Chinese woman at Bryant Park in New York City, on February 8, 2020, spread a message to counter racism in the wake of the deadly virus that emanated from China. Photo: Sujeet Rajan

In New York City, as this writer witnessed over the weekend, some Chinese individuals are now trying to highlight the far reaching effects of racism emanating from the deadly virus. Two individuals standing at Bryant Park wore placards like a garland around their neck, with hand-written messages to counter hate: ‘If hate is the virus, love is the cure.’ Another had this message in part (sic): ‘Hatrd & Discrimination are contagious like virus’.

Not just humans, robots are getting into the act too, to ‘counter’ the virus, disseminate right information.

In Times Square, New York City, a five-foot tall Promobot, created by a Philadelphia-based startup, helped provide information about the new virus, on February 11, 2020. Photo: Reuters.

In Times Square, a five-foot tall Promobot, created by a Philadelphia-based startup, helped provide information about the new virus, reported Reuters. Curious passersby stopped, filled out a short questionnaire on an iPad-like touch screen attached to the robot’s chest, and even had a conversation with the machine.

The robot does not actually detect the virus. It asks if a person has common symptoms such a fever and the person has to hit “yes” or “no” on the touch screen, after which they receive a reassuring message if they chose “no”.

A new book that landed on my desk recently, ‘the Book of Chinese Proverbs’, by Gerd de Ley – comprising of an interesting collection of timeless wisdom, wit, sayings and advice, has an entire section on animals, in fact is the opening chapter of the book, marking importance the Chinese give to animals. It’s also been their scourge, the source of the virus.

While there are myriad wise, intriguing sayings, like ‘The hinge of a door is never crowded with insects,’ one saying perhaps has a startling meaning, in context of the present situation: ‘The black dog gets the food; the white dog gets the blame.’

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)  



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