COVID-19 is far from the first widespread contagious disease; globally spread illnesses have affected humans throughout history, and while the pattern of social panic and over-preparation is similar in every event, this is the first time much of our generation is experiencing it. The swine flu never reached this level of global shutdown, nor did the 2014 Ebola outbreak, two of the most recent, memorable cases. Anxiety, tension, cautious measures, devastation, death, and, finally, dissolving news about the disease are all inevitable, but these societal symptoms have shown to be much greater in size and numbers in the case of COVID-19.
Anxiety is flowing as money-hungry, fear-mongering politicians speak over scientists and civilians that don’t actually know anything spread false information across Facebook like a wildfire. New information continues to trickle in from healthcare professionals as more is discovered about this newly-identified virus, while stress presses down on our shoulders as half of us social-distance and the other half ignores the recommendations of the CDC. While we develop new knowledge and technology to battle the inevitable rise of sickness, our social behaviors when in fight-or-flight mode, a physiological response to stressful situations, remain consistent. It’s in our nature to develop behavioral mechanisms to help ourselves adapt to the change in our surroundings, but one key tendency that is often not acknowledged is the placement of blame that occurs.
The history and context
As nice as it would be if we could all sit back and relax when a pandemic rises, that’s just not reality. Many of us are in fight-or-flight mode right now as our campuses close, our spring plans are canceled and we’re forced to social-distance ourselves. Anxiety and confusion are our middle names at the moment, as the mixed messages blasting through our media leave us wondering what exactly is going on and how long it will last.
According to University of Massachusetts Psychology Professor Susan Krauss Whitborne, blame is a tool we may use when we don’t understand something and we enter attack mode, one possible component of the fight-or-flight response. When you’re flooded with stress hormones, your body gets the signal that something needs to be done to protect you, and so to get rid of that bad feeling, our brains may choose to direct it onto others to cope.
The UK’s Science Museum Group published Brought To Life, a digital history of medicine. “When confronted by new and frightening illnesses, people can create scapegoats as a totally misguided means of coping with fear, focusing blame and bolstering prejudices,” they say. There’s always a group where the blame is placed, and Marian Liu has studied them. In an article for the Washington Post, she argues that oftentimes these epidemics are used as an excuse to justify xenophobia. The 2009 outbreak of swine flu was associated with Mexican Americans, and the 2003 SARS outbreak with Chinese Americans.
No difference can be said of the new Coronavirus. COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China, and spread from there. While its geographical origin is by no fault of the people, President Trump and his officials have made references that suggest otherwise. As stated in the Atlantic, the virus has been dubbed “foreign” and is frequently referred to as the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese coronavirus.” These names suggest that this virus is alien, and is the fault of the people of Wuhan.
The false narrative
I thought that this false name could be excused as just the ethnocentric and nationalistic ways that Trump and his supporters speak, however, sitting with my politically mixed family at dinner the other night, I heard comments from both ends of the spectrum that reflected the virus-related sentiments of Trump. I love my close-knit family, so the xenophobic remarks took me off guard with the tone of bitterness and disgust. The conversation started with, “Look what those Chinese have started,” and ended with, “I bet those Mexicans are happy that they built that wall,” and I realized this false narrative was definitely not just being created by Trump and vocalized in my family. It could be everywhere in between.
As a student at the University of Connecticut, a college with a large population of international students, it also occured to me how much this false placement of blame could affect these individuals, especially the Asian population. Much of the international program at my college is from China–in 2019, around 3,000 of the almost 4,000 international students were, according to the UConn student statistics. However, UConn also has an unfortunate history of racial harassment towards Asian students, which directly resulted in the creation of the Asian American Cultural Center. Aidan*, an Asian-American friend of mine, voiced his concern that he doesn’t want others to think he is and treat him any differently with regard to the virus. “People already make enough jokes about my ethnicity. I don’t want this to become another punch line when this is a serious matter that’s just as much a risk to me and my loved ones as anyone else,” he says.
This is not just an irrational fear held by my friend. The Washington Post Article by Marian Lui mentions a woman from California whose roommate’s mother told them, ignorant of the fact that the woman’s grandparents were from China, to avoid Chinese people and Chinese food.
Eric Yao, an international student at a private high school, just went back to his home in China due to spring break and the looming quarantines. While he has not personally experienced any disrespect, his family in America has. “My grandpa has been living in Connecticut for half a year, and he told me that the neighbors stopped saying ‘hello’ and ‘good morning,’” which used to be a daily occurance, he says.
Michaela Cecelia, who is not an international student but is of Chinese descent, spoke out via her Instagram stories, acknowledging Trump’s referral to the virus as the “Kung Flu.” She elaborated for Her Campus that, “By doing this, you show that it is acceptable to blame an entire race, my race, when people could be like me who are Chinese, but have lived in America all their life and find it offensive and hurtful. It is not their personal faults. In this time of distress, the last thing we need is a cruel nickname to point blame and bring on negativity.”
University of Maryland public health major Annika Meyer says that the disease should not be referred to in a way that generalizes a country or group. “Disease can’t be the fault of a country or group unless it’s bioterrorism, which this just isn’t. The fact that the President calls it the Chinese disease or Chinese flu is so racist and horrible,” she says.
The bigger picture
There’s enough physical isolation occuring due to the efforts against the spreading of COVID-19. The world doesn’t need additional isolation in the form of fear and discrimination based on a person’s identity, and those people don’t need the negative mental affects that are sure to come from being suddenly frozen out or antagonized.
The world is sensitive right now. People’s health, education, jobs, travel plans and daily lives are at stake and in response, the emotions of seven billion people have been stirred. Confusion, frustration, sadness and fear are igniting blame, hostility, and anger. I’ve even found myself picking arguments with family and friends, needing a source to put out my fiery feelings, but I realized something as my plans for this spring came crashing down with the closing of my university: These times where people feel the need to place blame are the times that show how far above we can rise. These moments that seem to test humanity are also the ones that have brought out the best in us. The great figures in history are remembered for their ability to rise above whatever oppositional force they were presented with, without focusing their energy on blaming.
Much like all those times that came before, this isn’t a time to place blame. Whether that be the person coughing next to you, your school, your airline, the government, a person, a people, a country, a higher power or anything in between. Remove the blame. We don’t have time for that. Take these feelings of confusion, frustration, anxiety, and sadness and recognize that yes, you feel that. And, guess what? Everyone else on Earth facing COVID-19 can relate. The person who just lost a loved one to the virus, the doctors fighting to find room in their hospitals, the government responsible for trying to maintain an entire country, and yes, those of us who are stuck at home missing school, or college seniors whose college experience ended abruptly. Everyone’s feelings are valid, regardless of their situation, because everyone is feeling just a little more lately, and this issue is bigger than just one person or one community. This is a rare time where every person, regardless of identity, is united in one struggle and cause against COVID-19. There is no time to blame, but instead to embrace the power of unity… even if unity just means having empathy, or patiently lying on your couch like a potato waiting for the start of your online course.
*Name has been changed.