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A resident wears a protective mask as she walks on an empty business street on February 13, 2020, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Photo by Stringer/Getty Images

The New Coronavirus and Racist Tropes

February 25, 2020 | Columbia Journalism Review

LAST MONTH, as news of the coronavirus now known as covid-19 spread, the New York Times published a story about “China’s omnivorous markets.” One of them, Huanan Seafood Market, was identified as a likely source of the outbreak. The story surfaced concerns, first raised during when SARS flared up, in 2002, about the sale of wild game in China—“a perfect laboratory for the unintentional incubation of new viruses,” wrote the Times, paraphrasing a health official. Markets like Huanan sell meat, produce, and “more unusual fare, including live snakes, turtles and cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs, otters, palm civets, even wolf cubs.” The catalogue was, it seems, meant to surprise non-Chinese readers; the effect orientalized Chinese people. Pamela Mejia, head of research at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, has noticed exoticizing language—references to “tradition” and “superstition”—in lots of the coronavirus coverage. “No one has said ‘inscrutable’ yet,” she said. “But it’s implied.”
 
Soon, bats were identified as having originated the virus. People in China are regularly exposed to these “biological super villains,” according to CNN. Scientists who travelled to neighboring Myanmar to research coronavirus in caves found themselves covered in “bat feces as it fell on them,” the Washington Post wrote. “Many of the caves serve as holy places, and custom calls for people to take off their shoes and socks, leaving their feet exposed.” Kent Ono, a professor of communications and Asian American studies at the University of Utah, found the press coverage to be reminiscent of articles published in the lead-up to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all ethnically-Chinese laborers from the United States. At the time, journalists fixated on the Asian rat as the source of bubonic plague. The rat became a barbarizing shorthand for the east. “It’s not shocking that, this time, the animal of choice as carrier of the virus is the bat,” Ono said. “Figuratively, a bat is a flying rat. The implication is that if humans in China are touching guano (bat dung), it marks the entire culture as unsanitary.” 
 
 

Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG) works with community groups, journalists and public health professionals to use the power of the media to advance healthy public policy.