Amidst alleged racism riding the waves of fear towards the coronavirus that originated from Wuhan in China, French-Asians began fighting back with the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I Am Not A Virus).
It started when a French newsletter source, Courrier Picard, published an issue with the headline “Coronavirus Chinois: Alerte Jaune” printed in bold, capital letters, paired with a photo of an Asian woman wearing a mask, and several lines briefly mentioning the coronavirus. This immediately caught local people’s and eventually international attention as the headline meant “Chinese Coronavirus: Yellow Alert,” which people perceived to be a racist comment directed towards Asian skin color.
I find it quite interesting but also very disturbing as to why this epidemic in particular set off such a wave of racism. MERS, which originated in the Middle East back in 2012 and severely infected European countries like Italy, did not cause as much negativity towards a certain race. The disrespect did not only appear in France, but in numerous countries. I’ve heard about incidents from my friends, read posts and seen videos on the internet that make me really upset. I’m confused over the logic of the offenders; and sad that anyone would have to deal with these kinds of situations. An Asian woman wearing a mask in New York’s metro station was physically and verbally attacked, when she could’ve been wearing the mask to protect herself and others; A friend from France described that when he was on the bus with a group of Asian girls near him, as a young man boarded the bus he said to my friend, “you should disinfect yourself when you get home”; French-born Chinese model Estelle Chen uploaded an Instagram post about her thoughts on the health crisis, along with a short description of her encounter with a lady while shopping in Paris. As soon as the lady saw her, the lady covered her face. Not because Estelle is diagnosed with the virus, not because she is coughing or displaying any suspicious symptoms – but simply because she is Asian.
People may have taken advantage of this widespread fear to openly express their negativity towards the Asian race. They don’t even bother to figure out if a person they encounter is Chinese or not, but then, that still doesn’t justify any of these racist actions. A Chinese-speaking person you meet on the streets could be permanently living in any country; or a student from China or Taiwan but studying abroad. An Asian person that walks past you down the supermarket aisle could be born and raised in a foreign country; or adopted by parents of another nationality or ethnicity. And what about the foreigners that also travel around, or live in Asian countries? What I’m trying to say is, there’s no way you can be sure who’s carrying the virus and who’s not. Those you instinctively think are carrying the virus may not be, and those you think are completely clean may also not be. As reports have mentioned, the coronavirus can be transmitted even when a person has not begun to show symptoms yet.
In response to the backlash due to its word choice “Alerte Jaune,” Courrier Picard excused itself explaining that they used the word “yellow” in a sense of colorimetric warning, like the system used for air pollution measurements or natural disaster cautions. Whether or not this explanation was pulled out as a shield, or it was in fact their original intention, we will never truly know. However, I believe they could’ve gave more thought on the controversy the word choice would cause, especially in such a sensitive time period. The fact that they put a photo of an Asian woman along with the headline, or called the epidemic “Chinese Coronavirus,” makes people think otherwise. You can easily say that it is freedom of speech and press, but it’s careless comments like this that provoke negative emotions, and in some cases, actions.
Of course, it’s understandable that people are afraid. But it’s not an excuse to be racist. “It’s so embarrassing, I can’t believe they put that as a headline,” said another one of my friends from France. Some others also stood up against racism when they saw it. A while ago when Taiwanese media first reported about the French headline, I posted on my Snapchat and Instagram stories. It pained me to realize that this headline came from the country I’ve lived in for a year and fell deeply in love with, but I believe what needed to be said had to be said. “We protect ourselves by wearing masks and respecting others, not by refusing others with the wrong reason.” I make sure to wear masks when I am on public transports, or in any public closed-off space. By doing so I am protecting myself and other people. Other people, as in people of any origin, background, race, or travel history – because this virus does not stick to a certain race or nationality. It can catch on to anyone, anywhere. When faced with a global health crisis, it should be the time for everyone to join forces and fight against this threat together, not privileging any group over another. This virus could’ve started from anywhere. As global citizens, we should be fighting the virus, not the people.
In a short video which I have pasted below, an Italian-Chinese man protests the prejudice towards Chinese and Asians by wearing a protective mask and covering up his eyes. People that walk by approach him, take off his mask, and hug him.
I have faith in people to be caring and compassionate.