COVID-19 which, like many diseases before, has been used to create a breeding ground for racism and xenophobia. The idea of degrading a part of a population in the context of a disease usually targets the same minor bodies which are identified with a low social and/ or racial status. In the course of the corona crisis, the phenomenon has affected not only citizens of Chinese descent but Asians as a whole. A space of systematic fear has been created in which the sick (Asian) body will most likely contaminate the healthy (more valuable white) body and therefore needs to be segregated and immobilized. Fueled with an already existing antagonism and stigmatization, it lead to a rise of violence and active abjection against Asian minorities in Western countries. In particular, the stigma occurs when white people associate COVID-19 with people of Asian descent. This means that Asian looking people are being labeled, stereotyped, separated and/or experience loss of status and discrimination because they are not only associated as a carrier of the virus, but claimed to be the virus themselves. Even though, the virus does not make a difference between people of certain racial backgrounds.
The outbreak of a viral fear can become a breeding ground for racism and xenophobia which spreads quicker and can be more harmful than the virus itself. Albert Camus may conclude, the dramatization of a disease can be used by authorities as a tool for the raise of fascism (1)
The discrimination against people of Asian descent goes back to 19th century, when imperial powers colonized the so called Chinese Melon and many other Asian countries. The German justified their raids by a potential threat of the Gelbe Gefahr (meaning yellow danger). In 1917 the US president Woodrow Wilson stated his intention clear:“to keep the white race strong against the yellow” (referring to China, Vietnam and India) and to preserve “white civilization and its domination of the planet" (2).
In World War I 140 000 Chinese and Vietnamese workers ( from a total of four million nonwhite soldiers) had been recruited by the the English and French. They had been the engine who maintained the Allies war infrastructure. After decades of oppression, slavery and fighting a war for foreign authorities, the yellow race did not receive any vote in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 under the lead of president Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps one may understand the Chinese and Vietnamese longing for strong and autonomous national state. Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh decided only communism can lead their countries to true sovereignty.
The prehistory of a yellow danger which represent the fear of otherness, can be the breeding ground for an Asian stigmatization. It is not a surprise when US president Donald Trump initially called the disease the Chines virus, to whom we are at war on Twitter. Just to remind ourselves, when the Swine Flue became a pandemic in 2009, nobody called it the American Swine Flue. The late outbreak of COVID-19 unveils a still existing conflict of former imperialist and newly global powers against the so called yellow danger.
1) Camus, Albert (1948): The Plaque.
2) Mishra, Pankaj (2018): Wilde, Räuber, Lumpen. Wie Soldaten Aus Den Kolonien
Im Ersten Weltkrieg In Europa Kämpfen. In: Lettre International, S.10-14.