Senior lector in Indonesian at the SOAS University of London
United States President Donald Trump recently referred to COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus”, insisting that such a term is not racist because the virus “comes from China”. Elsewhere, discriminative incidents against “Chinese” or “Chinese-looking” people after the outbreak of the virus have been reported.
On Feb. 24, a Singaporean student was beaten up by a group of men in central London who shouted, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country!” In Indonesia, several comments have said the virus is a punishment from God for the “kafir Chinese”. In Australia, the front page of The Herald Sun on Jan. 29 ran the headline “Chinese virus pandamonium”. Outrage ensued following the suggestive racial or ethnic association to a pandemonium through China’s iconic panda.
Human racism is nothing new. Most of us may also agree that Trump is racist and sexist. Many see these discriminative and racist attitudes (especially against the “Chinese”) as a byproduct of the COVID-19 outbreak. Some argue that this is really not the time to worry too much about discussing racism, as there is now a more urgent and pressing issue that concerns human lives: the novel coronavirus pandemic.
A well-known columnist, Graeme Wood, for instance, wrote in The Atlantic that Trump’s “Chinese virus” is a strategy to distract Americans from a bigger and much more important issue. As he wrote: “You should be more offended by Trump’s incompetence than by his attempt to racialize the pandemic.” Well, probably.
Nevertheless, if we are willing to see the wider picture, our discriminatory biases have actually taken a crucial part in the spread of this virus. Let us admit this: humans often discriminate; and calamities can reveal people’s “real” selves including their discriminatory biases. Those who are considered higher in status or superior can discriminate those considered lower or inferior more easily, and blame it on them when calamities happen.
In discrimination, we are familiar with the terms racism and sexism but how about speciesism? The word was made popular by the philosopher Peter Singer in his 1975 book Animal Liberation. Speciesism is the idea that the human is of higher status than non-human animals.
This bias has allowed humans to dominate, use and abuse animals; and blame them too when problems occur. We can name many other illnesses that are purportedly caused by animals like anthrax, swine flu and bird flu. However, human actions in the spread of these diseases have often been indispensable but rarely mentioned.
One initial factor blamed for the novel coronavirus was the consumption of wild animals in China. Cruelty against animals in China has been shared all over the media including the internet. But don’t forget, pandemics allegedly deriving from animals is not the first time and it did not happen only in China.
It is widely believed that the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease first spread in the United Kingdom around the 1980s among cattle. However, this pandemic didn’t spark similar racist incidents as did COVID-19. No headline stated the disease was a European or British disease.
The BSE was reportedly caused by feeding cows with meat and bone meal — remains of other cows. Thus, the herbivorous animals were made not only to eat meat but also to become cannibals by eating their own brethren. However, after the spread of mad cow disease, about 8 million cows were murdered in the UK alone — after humans caused them to get the disease, the animals were to blame and even discarded. Who is mad in this case: the cows or the humans?
Swine flu was called as such, indicating the culprit. The virus may have emanated from the imprisonment of pigs in tiny cells because most farmers prioritized profits.
In most farms, various species, which in their natural environment rarely come into encounter with each other, cohabit and are kept in packed cages.
Viruses easily jump among animals and from one species to another and maybe mutate more easily as well. That was how the virus from pigs likely infected humans. To eliminate this swine flu, millions of pigs were mass-murdered in front of each other. Humans caused the spread, but pigs took the blame.
Indeed, the meat industry involves cruelty, even to animals who are said to be killed “humanely”. And when there is a pandemic like COVID-19, most humans mainly blame animals.
Experts have warned that animal farming has contributed to biodiversity loss, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, livestock farming is estimated to have larger emissions than the combined ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport.
Perhaps, it takes a tiny virus to remind us that we need to ponder our tendencies of discriminating against any other creature — whether related to gender, sex, ethnicity, age or species — and the impacts of our attitudes on Earth.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.