As Singaporeans gathered over the Lunar New Year weekend, jokes were cracked about Chinese eating habits and how a propensity to eat “anything with four legs except the table and everything that flies except planes” had given rise to the Wuhan coronavirus.
One meme said there was no need to worry – the virus would not last long because it was “made in China”.
The jokes, tinged with racism, soon grew into a call for the city state to ban Chinese travellers from entering. A change.org petition started on January 26 had 118,858 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon. Among those calling for health to be prioritised over tourism dollars was Ian Ong, who wrote: “We are not rat or bat eaters and should not be made to shoulder their nonsense.”
Xenophobic chatter about mainland Chinese and their eating habits has spread across the world since the first cases of the novel coronavirus 2019 (2019 n-CoV) emerged in China’s Hubei province in December.
The virus has now infected more than 6,000 people, most of them in mainland China where at least 132 people have died. Dozens of people have been infected in the rest of Asia – including 10 in Singapore and seven in Malaysia.
Some countries, including the Philippines, have stopped issuing visas on arrival to all Chinese nationals. Papua New Guinea has gone further, shutting its air and seaports to all foreigners coming from Asia.
In Malaysia, there have been calls to block Chinese tourists and social media posts claiming the outbreak is “divine retribution” for China’s treatment of its Muslim Uygur population. Some mosques in Malaysia have also closed themselves off to tourists.
In Japan, a shop in a mountain town prompted an apology from tourism authorities after it posted a sign saying: “No Chinese are allowed to enter the store. I do not want to spread the virus.”
From noon on Wednesday Singapore has blocked the entry of tourists who had visited Hubei province in the past 14 days, or who hold passports issued in the province. Malaysia has also stopped issuing visas to Chinese travellers from Hubei.
The Singapore government has said the travel ban was due to global trends showing that most of the infections were in people who had been to the province and the country wanted to minimise import of the virus to Singapore.
The growing stigma has even reached European shores. Graduate student Sam Phan wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian about how a man on the bus in London had scrambled to get up as soon as Phan sat down. “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 wrote.
In Canada, Toronto website BlogTO said a stigma was also attached to Chinese food, noting that a similar thing happened during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which infected 8,000 people globally and killed nearly 800. The website noted racist comments on its Instagram post about a new Chinese restaurant, which some posters urged diners to avoid because it “may have bat pieces in there or whatever else they eat”.
The comments were in part a reference to a video of a Chinese social media influencer tucking into a bowl of bat soup. Some posters have claimed the video is evidence of “disgusting” Chinese eating habits, though the video was in fact filmed three years ago in Palau, a Pacific island nation where bat soup is a delicacy.
It is still unknown how the coronavirus made the jump from wildlife to humans, but early on in the outbreak the Huanan Seafood Market in the central city of Wuhan was widely assumed to be the origin of the disease. The market has a thriving wildlife trade, selling animals from foxes to wolf puppies, giant salamanders to peacocks and porcupines.
However, in recent days, research has emerged suggesting the market may not be the source of the virus.
The medical journal The Lancet on January 24 said that of the first clinical cases, 13 out of 41 had no link to the market.
The first patient showed symptoms on December 1, meaning human infections must have occurred in November 2019 given the two-week incubation period. Researchers said the virus could have spread in Wuhan before the cluster within the market was discovered.
Similarly, the virus’ genome has been sequenced but researchers are not sure if it comes from bats – as Sars did – or snakes. Still, experts said it is not so much about what meat is eaten, but how thoroughly it is cooked and the hygiene precautions taken during food preparation.
“The chef is at greatest risk,” said infectious disease specialist Leong Hoe Nam, who was closely involved in Singapore’s fight against Sars, which killed 33 people and infected 238 in the city state.
Leong said anybody could catch a virus from an animal.
“It is a case of the right person meeting the wrong virus at the wrong time. It could happen to anyone studying viruses, or meeting the bats in the most inopportune time,” he said, referring to a case in Melaka, Malaysia, when a bat flew into a house and infected a 39-year-old man and his family.
Painting the coronavirus as a Chinese problem was like “dealing with the problem with a sledge hammer, implicating all Chinese nationals rather than dealing with bad food safety practices and diets”, said National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser.
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu said xenophobic social media posts were an extension of colonial-era stereotypes.
“Chinese, in these xenophobic accounts, are seen as taking resources away from deserving local populations, and having uncouth behaviour. More broadly, this can also be seen as informed by older stereotypes of Chinese as dirty, having bad hygiene and undesirable culinary practices,” she said.
Even Singapore government ministers have spoken out.
Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs a task force set up to deal with the virus, said on Monday: “I want to assure Singaporeans that the government will do everything we can to protect Singaporeans and Singapore but this does not mean overreacting, or worse, turning xenophobic.”
Singaporean playwright Zizi Azah, who is based in New York, said it was illogical to pin the virus on a race. “Illness knows no geographical or racial boundaries and it really is the luck of the draw, isn’t it? Where something starts and where it gets to,” she said.
Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, director of the Centre for Interfaith Understanding, cautioned against the effects of dehumanising Chinese people as uncivilised. “It is not due to ‘Chinese-ness’; the fact that these people are Chinese is incidental, not the reason for the emergence and transmission of the virus. The virus could have emerged in any other part of the world, just as Ebola started in Congo and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Singapore’s Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung on Monday called for empathy, saying that Singaporeans would not have liked it if during the Sars outbreak other countries had asked Singaporean expatriates to leave.
“We’re an international hub, we can well be quite hard hit by such epidemics. So I’d say do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you. We all must tackle the problem objectively.”
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad clarified that any mosques that had closed themselves off to tourists had not done so on the government’s advice.
“This is not a government policy and it is an irresponsible act,” he said on Wednesday, warning the public against spreading fake news that could stir racial tensions.
“Even though we believe in freedom of expression, it does not mean we can be antagonistic and agitate the feelings of others.”
Source : South China Morning Post