The outbreak of a respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus has medical experts scrambling for answers, the World Health Organization (WHO) on the brink of declaring a global health emergency, and the entire world glued to its news alerts. Only overshadowed by the ongoing impeachment trial and the tragic death of Kobe and Gianna Bryant this past weekend, the disease has captured the attention of billions in a way not seen since the global outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014.
The virus is believed to have originated in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China. According to a Wednesday WHO report, their ninth addressing novel coronavirus, there are 6,065 confirmed cases globally, with all but 68 taking place in mainland China. In their eighth report, published Tuesday, the total number of confirmed cases was nearly 1,500 less than Wednesday’s numbers. The epidemic has resulted in the deaths of at least 132 Chinese citizens. Many fear that not only the number of cases, but the number of fatalities may be far higher.
The severity of the outbreak coincides with the commencement of the Chinese New Year on January 25th, which is traditionally recognized as one of China’s most sacred holidays. The Year of the Rat began far more somber than usual; celebrations were altogether canceled in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and the Chinese capital of Beijing. Additionally, celebrations in Paris and New York were not held.
Ma Xiaowei, a Chinese politician who serves as the first minister in charge of China’s National Health Commission, alarmed many around the world earlier in the week when he postulated that coronavirus can spread before symptoms show. The Chinese Communist Party, China’s leading governmental body, has garnered mixed reviews in its handling of the crisis. Many are quick to point out that mobilization against the coronavirus should have begun much sooner. Western political figures and news syndicates have used the outbreak to denounce CCP leader Xi Jinping’s regime, attempting to turn the coronavirus from a humanitarian issue into a chance to advance their very own foreign policy agenda.
As of Wednesday, medical experts have yet to discover a cure for the coronavirus. According to The New York Times, it took scientists close to 20 months to develop a vaccine for SARS, an outbreak of similar nature in 2003, and six months to develop one for the Zika epidemic, which struck in 2015. Several research institutions, medical experts, governments, and pharmaceutical companies are all racing to procure a vaccine to terminate the spread of the disease.
The United States, Taiwan, Australia, and Macau each have five confirmed cases at the time of print, while many of mainland China’s neighbors seem to be carrying the bulk of the international infection count: Thailand (14), Hong Kong (10), Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia (four each). There have been cases recorded in four countries that do not involve citizens who had previously traveled to China.
195 Americans were evacuated from Wuhan and arrived on American soil on Wednesday. The group consisted mostly of consular figures and their family members, but included some tourists as well; they’ll remain at their landing site in Southern California for three days before the potential for clearance to return home. The passengers will then be monitored for fourteen days in the hopes of containing the spread of the virus.
While United States officials hope to limit the outbreak to five cases domestically, its effects can be felt taking root on a large scale. Already the cause of PSA emails and face-mask hoarding, coronavirus has become the subject of many distasteful quips and is noticeably correlated to a rising wave of sinophobia, fearmongering, and typecasting in many Western countries. The reaction to the epidemic again harks back to the outbreak of Ebola, but instead of the Global North turning on those of African descent, it seems to have turned on all people of Chinese descent—no matter if they’ve visited China in recent months or not.
“I think as the virus crossed borders, it evolved into more so a disease that gave people an excuse to hate Chinese people and became less about health concerns,” said Jessica Zheng, a Boston University sophomore and Canadian national. Zheng spent the first six years of her life as a resident of China. “It’s hard to see my people die, but it’s been even worse to see people so eager to speak out so fast in places that aren’t as affected by the virus.”
Zheng noted the difference in symbolism when it comes to face masks in China and in the United States. She said that in China, face masks are worn to prevent sickness, whereas in America, face masks are seen as a symptom of sickness. Additionally, Zheng said that due to the hysteria surrounding the outbreak, she feels a certain pressure to downplay her race.
“Whether it’s wearing a lot of makeup so that I look ‘less Asian,’ or wearing more of my clothes with my sorority letters, the outbreak of the virus has made me acutely aware of how my status in society can slip simply due to stereotypes,” said Zheng.