The Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19 or nCoV-19 is a new strain of respiratory disease which originated in Wuhan, China in December of last year and has since sickened 98,067 people and killed over three thousand, according to the Center for Disease Control. Although the outbreak itself is horrible, it also sheds light on some of the uglier aspects of human behavior: Discrimination and selfishness. It is almost as though we have a disease of human nature occurring in tandem with COVID-19.
Perhaps one of the ugliest side effects of the COVID-19 outbreak is the racism and xenophobia against those of Asian descent around the world. Indeed, it has been well published over the last several months that the outbreak originated in the Hubei Province of China. But with that announcement there have been numerous instances of blatant racism against those perceived to be Chinese — including people openly calling COVID-19 the “China-virus.”
NPR tackled this issue in a recent article where they asked their readers to tell stories about instances where they have experienced discrimination solely because they are Asian and “assumed” to have COVID-19. The responses were astonishing. One reader, Roger Chiang, recalled a situation he was in a few days ago where a white woman across from him on the train was glaring at him and covering her mouth and nose. When Chiang told the woman he did not have COVID-19, she responded she “wasn’t racist — she just didn’t want to get sick.”
Last month, The Daily Campus published an article detailing student’s experiences at the University of Connecticut with racism in the wake of COVID-19. Xingyi Chen, a sixth-semester finance major and the founder of the International Student Advisory Board (ISAB) at UConn, recalled several situations where those around her overheard racist comments being made by students at the university.
“One of my friends went to a club event, and some American students said they are going to establish a band called ‘Wuhan Band,’ [where] everyone who is in the group needs to wear a mask to sing,” Chen said.
She also mentioned a situation where her a dining hall supervisor asked her friend if he had returned to China over winter break, and that the supervisor expressed “relief” when Chen’s friend said he had not. The racism, however outward or subtle, is here at UConn too.
Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told TIME Magazine last month that there appears to be a trend of discrimination and racism in the face of an outbreak because people like to pin the blame onto someone/a specific cohort to ease their fears and concerns over becoming ill. During the Ebola outbreak of 2014, those of African descent were targeted because of the disease’s Guinea origin. The consequences can be even more harmful than expected.
“Preventing social stigma in the context of an outbreak of infectious disease is not simply altruistic,” Dr. Schoch-Spana said. “Historically, people in scapegoated groups can be more reluctant to seek out medical care when they’re symptomatic.”
By comparison, other diseases that are believed to have originated in European countries or in the United States, by comparison, do not stir up racism towards the population/general demographic in those areas. Take the Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) outbreak of fall 2019, which originated in Massachusetts. Did we start vehemently organizing against Americans or calling it the “white European” disease? No. The issue with these outbreaks is that they expose deep-seated xenophobia towards marginalized populations that a disturbing number of people harbor.
Disease outbreaks like that of COVID-19 also show us just how selfish humans can be. There is a fine line that needs to be walked between self-preservation (our natural instinct to want to survive and be healthy) and unnecessary measures, both personally and professionally, that are fueled by selfish motives and not actually a genuine desire to keep the population safe.
Take the recent New York Times story of a New Hampshire man who had recently sought testing COVID-19. His immediate tests weren’t clear, but he was warned by a medical professional to avoid contact with others until his final results arrived a few days later. Ignoring the orders, the man proceeded to go to a crowded mixer at a music venue and days later, his results came back positive for COVID-19. A second individual who was with the man on the night he went out also recently tested positive, indicating that the original patient had exposed a large number of individuals to the disease.
The man, who was never explictly identified in the article, did comply with the self-isolation orders by the state after COVID-19 was confirmed. However, his case is indicative of a problem we have with outbreaks: Instead of staying home and preventing the spread of his possible disease to others, he neglected to consider all those who may be especially suspectible to COVID-19 and went out anyway. And it is not like he went out to dinner and somewhere where there is not a lot of people. He went to a crowded social gathering, potentially infecting thousands unknowingly because he could not be brought to obey his medical professional’s orders. (Did I mention the man himself works at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center?)
The selfishness is rampant in other ways that may not be so apparent, as well. For example, Sara Tasker, a British blogger and photographer, tweeted last week, “Is it me or is ‘coronavirus is no big deal because it will only kill old folk and those with health conditions’ a weirdly selfish and privileged take? I’m all on board for reducing hysteria but some people are so busy flaunting their chill they’re forgetting that’s real life to many.”
Tasker raises a good point: While these comments are often made to calm the fears surrounding coronavirus and its spread, they basically read as some Darwinist take that reduces the lives of the elderly and those of all ages who suffer from autoimmune disorders/prior conditions to essentially nothing. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), roughly 23.5 million Americans suffer from an autoimmune disease — roughly 7% of the population. Just because you may be healthy in terms of your age and your immune system functioning does not mean the individual next to you is blessed with the same privileges.
COVID-19 is a horrible disease, and until we can contain its wrath it will surely continue to sicken and kill thousands around the world. But it is not the only disease spreading like wildfire in 2020- it brings along xenophobia and blantant displays of human selfishness. Psychologically-speaking, we do not see many of these horrors until our lives are compromised. Perhaps the best way to combat COVID-19 is to treat the underlying diseases it harbors with the physical illness.
Taylor Harton is the associate news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.