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Meme or Malice: The Casual Racism Behind the Coronavirus Memes

Let me begin by saying that I, as well as almost every other person my age, LOVE memes. There’s no greater feeling than coming home after an exhausting day at uni and seeing some generous soul has tagged you in an excellent meme that makes you feel like all is right with the world. The first month of 2020 has only just ended, but already there’s been a lot of meme-able content circulating social media. Now, largely speaking, most memes are harmless – they swim out of your mind two seconds after you’ve seen them on Twitter. However, one has stuck with me this January for all the wrong reasons: the coronavirus meme.

The background

Firstly, it’s important to have an awareness of the context behind the meme. Scientists believe that coronaviruses spread from animals to humans. The virus in Wuhan, China, reportedly started at a food market that illegally traded wild animals. Wuhan is currently under quarantine and the death toll has reached 170. Over 7,700 cases have been confirmed in China, with the virus now spreading to other nearby countries. Considering this information, it suddenly seems that the coronavirus really shouldn’t be something we’re laughing about.

Not just a meme
Living Room With Globe
Breanna Coon / Her Campus

Part of me wants to believe that this is typical British humour, we make fun out of the things we’re secretly scared of. A ‘laugh or else you’ll cry’ kind of vibe. But the casual racism behind this meme is undeniable. It seems as if the culturally insensitive stereotype of Chinese people being ‘dirty’ or ‘backwards’ for eating animals has had a significant impact on this meme. It’s also clear that it is not only people who were born and live in China that Britons/Europeans/Americans/Westerners consider to be ‘diseased,’ but people of Chinese origin who live in Western countries as ethnic minorities. To me, this seems like a classic case of a refusal to view people of non-Western origin as equal human entities. It’s okay for ‘us’ to make fun of ‘them,’ as they’re not as civilised as us. I don’t doubt that many will argue that this is ‘just a meme.’ But that’s not good enough. When real people are dying, being dehumanised, and made into living jokes, it is not ‘just a meme.’

Instagram’s impact

Although there’s sadly far too many memes I could highlight and deconstruct, I’ll choose just one to focus on. Featured on an Instagram account called urbantv, it’s captioned ‘*sees an international student cough* The rest of campus:’. The video underneath said caption features hundreds of chickens scampering away whilst a siren plays in the background. Funny video, unfunny caption. It currently has over 58,000 likes, I was extremely disappointed to see several university students that I knew had liked the post. Not only does it lump all international students together, regardless of whether they are from China or not, (which is a problem in itself) but it also creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction. Moreover, the use of ‘international students’ rather than ‘Chinese students’ appears to suggest that this meme is in fact self-aware. The person who has created this meme knows that if they specifically mention that Chinese people spread disease, this will seem a bit ‘too racist’. Broadening the scope to all international students on the other hand? Seemingly that’s okay.

The Seriousness of the Situation

As someone who has lived in Britain all their life, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be a student of Chinese origin and to see something like this. To have your race associated with a viral disease. To have your culture be synonymous with being ‘dirty’. We must think about how harmful this is. Chinese students at university may even have relatives at home who are at risk of contracting the virus.

It is very convenient for Westerners to make fun of such a serious issue just because it is far away from us and, so far, only seriously affecting Chinese people. It reminds me of the circulation of racist memes from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Both have a common theme: that non-Western people are dirty and subhuman, and that therefore it is okay to laugh at them.

Undoubtedly, most don’t intend to perpetuate sinophobic stereotypes by sharing or liking these memes, but the casual racism is obvious. It is clear that Chinese people are largely being associated with the virus, regardless of whether they have had contact with it. It’s not hard to challenge what we consume online, and I’m certainly not saying we can’t enjoy memes or have freedom of speech. But let’s challenge the racism and xenophobia behind this meme, and let it die in disgrace rather than hail it in the ‘meme of the month’ hall of fame. We are all individual human beings, regardless of ethnicity. Viral diseases don’t discriminate on the grounds of race. Only people.


Words by Hannah Martin.

Edited by Laura Murphy.

Hey! I'm Hannah and I'm a third year English and Sociology student at the University of Leeds. My interests include: writing, embroidery, cooking and baking, the environment, music, and social justice! My articles focus mainly on lifestyle and various social issues.
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