In China, more than 76,000 people have contracted COVID-19 and more than 2,200 have died. The virus continues to spread across the globe, frightening and surprising governments with the speed and extent of its reach.
On Feb. 5, Vancouver’s the Province, in red and black bolded letters, used the headline “2nd China Virus Case in BC” to describe British Columbia’s second reported case of COVID-19, causing dissatisfaction with Chinese Consulate-General in Vancouver Tong Xiaoling (佟曉玲).
She issued an official statement, and in a Canadian Broadcasting Corp interview, said the use of the term “China virus” to describe COVID-19 was racially biased and discriminatory, unprofessional and deserving censure, and she demanded an apology.
The Vancouver Sun and the Province’s chief editor, Harold Munro, responded by explaining that the headline did not seek to describe the disease, but rather its place of origin, and does not carry any hint of discrimination. This humble man, perhaps understanding the political climate of the day, expressed regret that the headline caused dissatisfaction among Chinese-Canadians.
The “China virus” headline carries no discriminatory attitude. Traditionally, the world press uses terms to describe a disease’s place of origin, and to distinguish one from another, such as “Japanese pneumonia,” “Spanish flu,” “German measles” and “African swine fever.” None of these carry any discriminatory slant, and no country has demanded an apology over their use.
Compared with more academic or official terms, such as the WHO’s COVID-19, associating a disease with its place of origin makes it easier to remember, as well as more understandable and identifiable.
Ever since China’s dictatorship began suppressing any dissenting opinion to control the direction of public sentiment, it has demanded uniformity to the party line in any kind of documentary work, as well as all print media, and forbidden deviation from that line, at the risk of losing one’s livelihood.
Tong is probably used to the ways of the Chinese government, and thus would demand that the Province parrot the party line, and forbid anyone from naming the disease’s place of origin — this is simply an absurd position.
To elevate “China virus” to the level of a discriminatory act is making a mountain out of a molehill. In the lingo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), this is called “raising opinions to the level of a larger issue.”
There is a significant difference between taking preventative measures against the virus and racial discrimination, and they cannot or should not be painted with the same brush.
For instance, a person traveling from an area affected by the virus being subjected to a 14-day quarantine is a preventative measure and not racial discrimination. Choosing not to participate in Chinese community events is also a way to prevent catching the virus, and not racial profiling.
To consider anything, no matter how insignificant, a discriminatory act, is one of China’s weapons of choice, which attempts to play up nationalistic fervor with overseas Chinese, cut off any critical comments, and obfuscate the CCP’s many crimes. People should be careful not to fall prey to these tactics.
As early as December last year, eight physicians revealed the existence of the coronavirus; they are now being referred to as “whistle-blowers.” One of the doctors was Wuhan Central Hospital’s Li Wenliang (李文亮). He used the microblogging site Sina Weibo to reveal that the hospital had admitted seven patients, all from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, who exhibited SARS-like symptoms. He did this as a warning to other healthcare workers to take appropriate precautionary measures.
China’s Public Security Bureau, using the pretext of rumor-mongering and disseminating false information, interviewed Li and, during his detention at the police station, required him to sign an “exhortation.” Later on, Li himself succumbed to the virus and died on the morning of Feb. 7.
When the viral infection first emerged, Beijing prevented news from spreading, suppressed freedom of expression and strangled people’s right to information, which helped the virus progress from containable to uncontrollable within a period of only 20 days, and the government delayed any preventative measures until the situation was out of hand.
By Feb. 4, more than 70 countries had instituted varying degrees of restrictions against admitting Chinese nationals. Dissemination of this latest outbreak has affected the world’s economy, affected the day-to-day living of ordinary citizens, and created a feeling of unease or alarm among the public.
Artists and writers are using irony, sarcasm and humor to express their feelings toward this outbreak. Here are a few examples:
Time magazine’s Feb. 17 cover featured an illustration of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) wearing a mask with the words “China’s Test.” The Economist’s Feb. 1 issue used a picture of the Earth wearing a mask on its cover with the headline “How bad will it get?” Germany’s Der Spiegel on Feb. 1 used the words “Corona-Virus Made in China” on its cover.
Danish daily Jyllands-Posten printed an illustration of the Chinese flag that replaced the five yellow stars with five viruses. Dutch online editorial cartoon platform Cartoon Movement features various cartoons depicting the virus in China; the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece with the headline “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”
These all reveal a deep dissatisfaction in the world toward China, anger and even a sense of dread. This cannot be explained or rationalized simply by referring to them as racial discrimination.
It is as clear as day that the viral scourge developed to its current state because of China’s suppression of freedom of speech and information, obfuscation of the truth and its delay in taking any preventative measures, leading to its worldwide dissemination.
The one person who really needs to apologize to the entire world is Xi, and the government under him. Do not let them find other scapegoats or put the blame on officials lower on the chain of command.
Florence Mo Han Aw is a writer based in Canada.
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