Racism and COVID-19: Remembering ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’

With none other than US President Donald Trump leading the charge against China by calling the novel coronavirus a “Chinese virus”, it is unsurprising that racist attacks on the Chinese have dramatically increased, especially in the US.

Recently, The New York Times ran a piece  titled, “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety”, the Times Higher Ed carried an article titled “Coronavirus sparks a rising tide of xenophobia worldwide” and the LA Times featured the personal experiences of columnist, Frank Shyong, titled, “’It’s just too much’: Asian Americans confront xenophobia, economic devastation and the coronavirus.”

We, in India, know how instances of bigotry spiral out of control when so-called political leaders irresponsibly make statements  laced with hate and narrow-mindedness. We saw this in relation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark on identifying protestors by their clothes and then we saw the deadly consequences of Delhi MLA Kapil Mishra’s bloodthirsty cry, “Desh ke gaddaron ko…”.

The whole idea of China as a wilful source and propagator of diseases is a short-sighted, shallow and malicious attempt at finding someone to blame and indulging in a sort of cultural inquisition – tarring-and-feathering an entire population.

Some of the worst forms of reprisals by both the citizens and the states are rooted in this kind of generalisation.

The internment of Japanese-Americans on the west coast of the US after Pearl Harbor is still a blot in the US history. India has a similar story, equally horrific, when Chinese-Indians were put in internment camps after the Indo-China confrontation in 1962.

It’s even worse when well-known personalities, such as television anchor Rahul Kanwal of India Today and Aaj Tak also espouse shallow opinions on the Chinese food habits:

Hope #CoronaVirus leads to a major debate and serious soul searching in #China It’s the eating habits of some folks there that’s responsible for the mess whole world finds itself in. And this isn’t the first time. Need to cleanse eating habits so that we don’t suffer an encore.

— Rahul Kanwal (@rahulkanwal) March 25, 2020

Blind racism

Such bigoted arguments are bigoted and similar to the wild accusations over beef, which resulted in the actual lynching of so many Indians. As they say, one person’s pudding is another person’s poison. Chinese eating habits can be as clean and healthy as those of Indians, if the latter has any truth to its healthful nature.

Ironically, Indians are obsessed with Chinese food, even though it has now been somewhat Indianised. Every mall, shopping arcade – especially those with frequented by the affluent with more “global tastes” – boasts a Chinese food outlet.

Are we now going to resist our craving for what is essentially a part of the Chinese “eating habits”? Are we going to ask ourselves how suddenly Chinese “eating habits” are suspicious?

For several people in the so-called developed world, countries like India are perennial examples of unhygienic and unsanitary conditions – as reflected in our public spaces or in our food joints. Trump spoke his mind when he tried to block immigration from certain countries he referred to as “shithole”.

Also read: ‘We Are Not Corona’: Northeast Students Make Posters Against Racial Abuse

Consider the recent New York Times report on the total lockdown imposed in India. While the reporter addresses the issue very sensitively, a certain “foreign gaze” seems to slip through here:

“How can we practice social distancing here?’’ asked Amit Kumar, a shopkeeper.

He glanced around the lanes littered with garbage. Nearby, one man cleared his throat and spat an oyster of phlegm onto the sidewalk.

Similarly, the German author Gunter Grass was lacerating about Calcutta in his novel The Flounder:

“Why not a poem about a pile of shit that god dropped and named Calcutta. How it swarms, stinks, lives and gets bigger and bigger.”

In the same vein, V.S. Naipaul felt that he almost stepped on shit when he landed in Mumbai. Not to mention, that the capital of India, Delhi, is notorious for its food culture and the stomach condition it results into – euphemistically referred to as Delhi Belly.

So, before we Indians get preachy and sanctimonious about other people and paint them in a totalising manner over their lifestyle preferences, we must pause and try to see the current situation with sympathy and perspective – while being aware of our own position.

Indians world over, especially turbaned Sikhs in the US, have been targets of blind racism after the 9/11 attacks. In our zeal to be holier-than-thou, we have directed our own blind racism towards the Northeast citizens in India, mistaking them for the Chinese. Such instances are deeply troubling and point to inherent biases in our own societies which we must take stock of first.

It is probably good to be reminded that in the “Global Disease Hotspots 2.0” study  that tracks “global emerging disease hotspots,” China and India feature prominently on the map, which “identifies parts of South and Southeast Asia, West and Central Africa, and Latin America as having the highest potential for disease spillover. Places like Bangladesh, India, and China are the brightest, indicating highest risk.” While pretty much the entire Third World is predictably listed as sources of emerging diseases, China and India are prominently highlighted. A sobering thought for the Indian germ zealots, hopefully!

Origins of diseases

In terms of the origin and spread of the coronavirus, germ-warfare is a term that is also being bandied about now, again targeting China without adequate evidence. It might help remembering that the West has been the source of several diseases among different populations it has come in contact with.

Native Americans, especially those that made early contact with the colonists, like the tribes of New England, succumbed en masse to the diseases that they contracted. As one account, in the book Rationalizing Epidemics by David Jones, a professor of History of Science at Harvard University, puts it:

Epidemics of smallpox, measles, and influenza took the highest toll. These diseases, endemic in Europe, had not been present in the Americas before European arrival. Europeans, exposed as children, developed immunity that protected them as adults. American Indians, without this immunity from prior exposure, and stressed by the chaos of European colonization, were dangerously vulnerable. They died in great numbers.

Such transmission of diseases is in addition to the many accounts of the belief that the colonists deliberately presented blankets to the Native American infected with smallpox, though scholars debate the authenticity of such reports.

Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, characterises such lethal encounters between the colonists and the indigenous populations in no uncertain terms:

The importance of lethal microbes in human history is well illustrated by Europeans’ conquest and depopulation of the New World. Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords.

When Hernando de Soto became the first European conquistador to march through the southeastern US, in 1540, he came across Indian town sites abandoned two years ago because the inhabitants had died in epidemics, which were transmitted from coastal Indians infected by Spaniards visiting the coast. The Spaniards’ microbes spread to the interior in advance of the Spaniards themselves.

Plagues and pestilences have occurred among various populations, including in what is the developed West today. However, in recent times, it is the developing world that is often saddled with the stigma of being the source of diseases and viruses. But it was not always that way.

Also read: Battling the Contagious Disease of Racism: A Personal Account From Germany

Global calamities call for global responses and also global understanding and compassion. A tiny country like Cuba is using its medical expertise in helping out in the fight against COVID-19, sending doctors to places that need them and also allowing ships with corona-affected passengers to dock in its waters. As a piece in the Independent notes about this last act of generosity:

In a sign of true global solidarity, Cuba today allowed MS Braemer, a British cruise ship, to dock on its shores despite having at least five confirmed coronavirus cases on board and another 52 passengers displaying symptoms. The ship, with over 600 mainly British passengers, had no Cuban nationals on board but had requested help from both Cuba and the US.

In fact, Italy and a few countries requested China, Cuba and Venezuela to make doctors and equipment available in the fight against the coronavirus. “We are in touch with Cuba, Venezuela, and China, who have made doctors available,” said Lombardy’s health minister, Giulio Gallera, in a press conference.

Instead of a blame-game and finger-pointing, this should be a time to dig our heels in and put our heads together – as virtually as possible – to emerge out of this pandemic as soon as possible. It is also the time for global support networks – at least for resources and knowledge-exchange – so no one country feels overwhelmed. It is not a time for self-righteousness as we all have spots and stains on our hands that, like Lady Macbeth’s, will not go away despite any amount of handwashing.

Umang Kumar is a sometime writer and a socially conscious citizen living in Delhi NCR.

Featured image credit: Marcus Spiske/Unsplash