In March, a video that went viral showed an Egyptian taxi driver expelling a Chinese passenger from his car on a highway in Cairo because of fears the man might have the novel coronavirus.
The incident reflected the stigmatization of people from China or those perceived to be Chinese in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Within days of the news of the first confirmed cases of the virus in China, social media was bustling with theories about its origin, mostly relating it to the Chinese food culture.
The Narrative vs. the Reality
To scientists who study human societies, behavior and cultures, these attitudes didn’t come as a surprise.
“Epidemics exist in such a scale and complicated ways biologically, clinically, socially and geographically, that it is very hard for anyone to be able to grasp them,” said Charles L. Briggs, president of the Society for Medical Anthropology in the United States and a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. So people “tend to very quickly form a particular narrative of the epidemic that often revolves around a projected point of origin.”
Although these narratives seldom reflect epidemiological knowledge, they become widespread and often define a particular epidemic. One example is cholera in the 19th century, which was called “Asiatic cholera.” The association of the disease with India stigmatized the country for years. In the same way, when a new flu virus, Influenza A (H2N2), emerged in East Asia in 1957, the pandemic it caused was called the “Asian flu.”
A Manifestation of Existing Inequalities
Stigmatization is not the only outcome of such accounts. Briggs explains that these narratives create a frame that can make people dismiss the underlying factors that help shape the way an epidemic is unfolding, such as populations, distribution of health care and the resources that people have.