Dear Minister Mkhize: Blaming a Chinese Person For COVID-19 is NOT OK.

‘Mistakes’ like this are spreading racism and xenophobia faster than the virus.

I was at work yesterday, listening to a colleague laugh about how “this virus is making everyone do crazy things”. By ‘crazy things’, he means the fact that he crossed the street because he saw ‘Chinese nationals’ walking towards him. 

Wait, WTF?

On 12 March 2020, the South African government confirmed 4 more cases of COVID-19 in the country. One case being a man from the Free State who contracted the virus by, allegedly, coming into contact with a “Chinese businessman”.

The statement regarding the case has since been retracted, with health minister Zweli Mkhize citing a “mistake” and offering his apologies. What got to me was the unnecessary and unfair mention of the nationality of the businessman. Was it proven? The statement failed to mention where the businessman contracted it or, even, that he tested positive himself.

Dear Minister Mkhize:

This confusing statement not only points to an internalised prejudice that is now being highlighted with people using the virus as an excuse, but also points to the role that government and the media play in breeding racism and xenophobia, particularly amongst minority groups.

“[It was] an irresponsible, dismissive thing to do in wake of nationwide panic.”

The government, with statements like “a Chinese businessman”, fuels microaggressions. For example: My colleague ‘politely’ crossing the street to avoid an Asian couple, or a media house using pictures of Asian people in an article about Scotts contracting the virus.

Microaggressions are damaging and violent because they infiltrate conversations and psyches before anyone can realise their implications. In turn, these microaggressions have now bubbled over into full-blown Asian discrimination, causing Chinese-owned businesses to suffer, Chinatown districts to be deserted, and growing popularity in memes targeting Asian nationalities.

“The more we allow this racism and xenophobia to grow, the more likely it is to linger.”

So, it is evident why the “Chinese businessman” was not just a statement. The fact that it came from an official South African government media release, and was then republished by media houses, is also proof that no authority is taking the initiative of coming to the defence of Asian-South Africans or foreign nationals–an irresponsible, dismissive thing to do in wake of nationwide panic.

CC: SA Media

This is where being a socially conscious citizen of the world really matters. Blindly accepting biased media information not only cultivates fear, but disproportionately affects people in a largely-rural country like ours, where many people rely on word of mouth as one of their primary sources of information. The more we allow this racism and xenophobia to grow, the more likely it is to linger long after COVID-19 is a memory.

Fear-fuelled racism and xenophobia are, evidently, spreading faster than the virus itself. If we don’t work through prejudice and understand the world beyond the information that is spoon-fed to us – even if it is from the government- the effects of this virus will (as it already has begun to) reach further than just our physical health. 

To figure out the myths and get clued up read our Three Fact Sheet on the Coronavirus here.

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