Quarantine, travel bans, and historical racism

Unfortunately, the wave of xenophobia that was seen in Canada during the 2003 SARS outbreak is being somewhat replicated, but this time within the context and amplification of a 2020 social media media environment, and inter-linking platforms.

The fear of outbreak that gripped people overrode the pragmatic public health advice, resulting in Toronto losing an estimated C$1billion as residents and tourists avoided the city, especially areas with a high concentration of Chinese business.

And they’re starting to see it again – a new restaurant was reviewed on a popular Toronto blog’s Instagram account last week, and it quickly attracted a large amount of racist comments. And we are seeing this on Twitter and Facebook too, as well as parents doing this like signing petitions to keep recently arrived students from China from attending schools.

The thing is that we have to make sure we pay attention to is what we anchor our fears to – the uncertainty and the unsaid implicit message of a flight ban is a current issue today here in New Zealand, as new regulations come into force restricting travel for those recently in China.

The implicit message here is that perhaps the danger from the coronavirus is bigger than they are saying it is.

This speaks to an unspoken but now realised fear: that travellers from China are bringing an unknown threat to New Zealand, and we are assuming the worst case scenario, or else the authorities wouldn’t be acting in this way.

It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophesy. In uncertain times, we look for others to lead. And if the Government leads by saying this is so dangerous we are effectively stopping people who have gone through China from coming here, then its no wonder that we may assume the worst and follow the lead; that people arriving from China are somehow dangerous.

The answer to this lies in the lesson that it is important to anchor ourselves in a way that requires us to check these fears  against reality. Yes, it’s a partially unknown threat. But what about threats we know about?

How many people did seasonal flu kill last year – even though there was a vaccine available?

More than 200,000 New Zealanders contract the flu each year. Of these, it’s estimated that 400-500 people will die either directly or indirectly from its effects.

From June–November 2009, a total of 49 deaths were considered to be associated with pandemic influenza A(H1N1) 2009.

There have been zero cases of 2019-nCoV in New Zealand so far. We want it to stay that way, but its unlikely to remain so.

Nevertheless, we may tend to overestimate the impact of a disease outbreak, for fear of what the worst case scenario may look like. It’s wise to be cautious, but there need to be parallel messages – from those who lead- dealing with possible structural aspects of racism being re-awoken by these measures. Historical racism that, though buried in its shallow grave, pokes outs its zombie limbs from time to time, given enough digging, dogwhistles and light scratching beneath the surface.

What we need to guard against is blaming the messenger (or in this case, the people identified to belong to the group associated with where the virus originated, through no fault of anything other than accident of birthplace or where they live their lives or travel to) – but we’ll have to try really, really hard because history shows that we’ve been doing it for a long, long time.

Leadership is needed. Don’t be found wanting.

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