Dozens of disaster movies and novels have shown us, with a certain dose of smugness, how easily civilization and its rules collapse in front of apocalyptic events, transforming normally decent human beings into a feral, Hobbesian state of generalized war for survival. Judging from the reactions to the early stages of the Coronavirus epidemics, one should actually conclude that these depictions are optimistic: civilization may collapse way before the asteroid reaches the Earth.
From all over the world, incidents of racism and xenophobia related to the virus outbreak are reported daily, to such an extent that Wikipedia has consecrated a specific page to the phenomenon. According to the Anti-Defamation League, conspiracy theories and “boogaloo” (a term used by extremists to denote an imminent state of anarchy, widespread violence, and civil war) are flourishing around the Coronavirus hysteria.
Let us be clear on this point: “hysteria” is something different from legitimate fear, and not all suspicions surrounding the origin of the pathogen may be easily dismissed as “conspiracy theories”. Preoccupations concerning the possible artificial creation of Coronavirus are being raised even by the scientific community and the U.S. Senate. After all, a dictatorship lacking any free press, independent judicial system, and parliamentary opposition, which kept the epidemic’s spread silent for weeks and punished those who raised the alert, cannot claim an immaculate pedigree of trustworthiness. The Chinese regime is too secretive and thirsty for world supremacy to persuade international public opinion that its military laboratories would never play the sorcerer’s apprentice.
Regardless of the origin of the virus, the Wall Street Journal rightfully noted that “complaints in Beijing about the U.S. refusing entry to noncitizens who recently spent time in China cannot hide the reality that the decisions that allowed the epidemic to spread as far and as fast as it did were all made in Wuhan and Beijing”. Incidentally, far from attempting any remote resemblance of self-critique, China’s reaction was to expel three Journal correspondents in retribution for the article’s publication.
It is not the conjectures about the regime which are revealing the darker side of our soul. Nor is the understandable fear of a virus whereof the scientific community still knows too little. What we should worry about, instead, is the use of conspiracy theories to demonize certain peoples, and the riot of racism and real-life attacks against individuals.
Certainly, as The Economist writes, “ethnophobia triggered by the virus is sometimes subtle, and hard to separate from overblown fears of the pathogen itself”. However, certain press articles too loosely lump together, under the common denominators of “discrimination” and “xenophobia”, both clearly racist attacks and merely prudential measures, such as the decision of certain schools’ principals to refuse admission to all students coming from China (regardless of nationality) until a medical exam has cleared them.
For a start, it would be good to distinguish between “xenophobia” and “viruphobia”, a term that has the “merit” of not discriminating between white, yellow, or brown potential plague-spreaders. From this perspective, the episode of Ukrainians attacking with stones and bonfires the buses carrying their own compatriots evacuated from China is emblematic. (The Ukrainian case was also an object lesson in disinformation: the mass-email that precipitated the panic and violence was fabricated from outside the country, likely by the Russian government.)
Such hysterical reactions are very different in nature from excesses of caution that are not necessarily irrational: according to some medical scientists, authorities are actually underestimating the virus, and therefore not taking enough measures to avoid its spread. One of the most respected Italian experts of vaccines has gone as far as to request that the authorities quarantine all those coming back from China, stressing that this has nothing to do with ethnicity, but is a matter of pure medical prudence in front of an extremely contagious, and still largely unknown, pathogen. The very recent case of an Italian man, who is in serious condition after being apparently infected by a symptomless businessman returning from China, seems to confirm this thesis.
Having clarified this point, let’s go back to what should really worry us.
White supremacists on Telegram, 4Chan, and Gab are exploiting the epidemic to spread antisemitism, either portraying Jews as the masterminds behind the outbreak, or cherishing the virus as the deus ex machina of a new holocaust or of the annihilation of Israel: “3 down, 5,999,997 to go!” , someone wrote on Telegram after three Israelis were quarantined.
But the most viciously targeted are, for obvious reasons, Chinese people or whoever could appear as such. Certain social media users have described Chinese people as “disgusting”, said that they “deserve” this fate as a form of Nature’s vengeance, called the virus a “divine punishment”, even wished that Coronavirus exterminates all Chinese “filthy beasts” once and for all.
Offline, too, Chinese or merely Oriental people have been insulted just for having almond-shaped eyes. Event violent attacks are taking place. In London, an East Asian young man was assaulted, robbed, and punched by teenagers shouting “Coronavirus” at him. In New York‘s Chinatown, a man attacked an Asian woman in the subway calling her a “diseased b****”. In Italy, a Filipino man was even hospitalized after thugs attacked him for being an “infected Chinese”.
These anecdotes epitomize a wider tendency, and not a new one. In both remote and recent history, groups labelled as foreigners have been the prototype scapegoats to blame for any sort of plagues. The latter merely work as a trigger, detonating more profound and darker sentiments — a dormant, but always present, “xenophobia” it its etymological sense of abhorrence of the outsider.
In these days when we are mourning nine people brutally killed by a white-supremacist terrorist in Hanau, Germany, we are called upon to draw some lessons from his manifesto. In its conscious delirium, he called for the extermination of non-whites, the destruction of Middle Eastern countries, and the annihilation of “destructive races”.
Messages like “3 down, 5,999,997 to go!”, or “let’s hope that the virus exterminates those filthy beasts once and for all” are not qualitatively different from these tenets. Obviously, this is not to claim that the people in question are potential terrorists — in the same way that a Muslim cheering over ISIS’ massacres of infidels is not necessarily a precursor to him taking up weapons in Syria or blowing himself up in an airport. Certain messages might even represent an occasional, albeit non-excusable, outburst of personal frustrations from otherwise peaceful people conducting a normal social life.
Yet, in a sense this makes things even worse. It means that hatred has been normalized, and that certain ideas are capable of taking root among the average public, like a cancer cell in a healthy brain. The 17 million Germans who voted for Hitler in 1933 were not all dreaming about the Holocaust. Unfortunately, cancer cells have the attitude to reproduce themselves uncontrollably and rapidly when they find a fertile ground, and a society losing its antibodies risks silently develop metastases.
Nine corpses are there to remind us that a cure, at that point, comes too late.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.