LIVERPOOL: I’ve lived and worked in Liverpool for two years now. But this week, I received my first rather random, racially-motivated slur.
I was at a cemetery, taking my students on a field trip, when we encountered a group of teenagers. One started gesturing, and as she walked past, made eye contact and yelled “coronavirus!” at me.
My colleague who was with me was horrified, but I tried to shrug it off. Should I have set those young ones straight? Maybe, but the headline “Middle-aged lecturer chased around cemetery by 13-year old schoolchildren” would not do any favours to my street cred.
The prevalence of COVID-19 has sparked a steady stream of stories around the world of Asian (and Asian-looking) individuals being subjected to verbal harassment, differentiated treatment and even physical assault.
Most recently, police in London are looking into a case of a Singaporean student allegedly assaulted after confronting a group of teenagers who targeted him with COVID-19 taunts.
READ: Commentary: Protecting public health is key in novel coronavirus fight but we must also tackle xenophobia
For every story that makes the news, there are a multitude of others that remain unreported.
That it took this long to happen to me in Liverpool actually shows the kindness, generosity and hospitality of individuals in the Northwest of England. Wherever I have gone, I have been treated no differently. Indeed, when teaching, it was heartening to see local and international students happily interacting without fear.
WHY STIGMATISING ARISES
So why do people shun, taunt or attack others in times of crises? Some will argue that the acts are irrational, that we are psychologically reacting. Others will point to our primordial instinct to stay alive and away from anything that might kill us.
In the current climate, many attribute such behaviour to racism and xenophobia, and there is certainly some truth to this. Individuals are being targeted, segregated and marginalised based on their ethnic appearance.
To the perpetrators, it does not matter if one is Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese. Anybody who even remotely resembles “Chinese” in their eyes is fair game for insults and assaults.
Even then, let’s not forget that in the past few weeks, anyone even remotely connected to the virus has also been subjected to similar behaviour – nurses, ambulance drivers, even students in the uniform of a junior college where COVID-19 was detected have been shunned in Singapore.
So while racism and xenophobia explain some behaviour, it is important for us to understand the intersections of other factors that can help us to explain what we are witnessing on an everyday basis.
THIS HAS HAPPENED BEFORE
To do this, we need to go further back than SARS. It is tempting to draw parallels to how society behaved during the SARS outbreak, but another epidemic in the 1980s has, in the words of sociologist Professor Deborah Lupton who studies healthcare issues, social resonance.
When the world first encountered HIV and AIDS, no one knew how it was transmitted, how it emerged, who was most susceptible, and worst of all, how to treat it.
In some parts of the world, many of the first patients stricken by HIV and AIDS were shunned by both family and medical professionals, who were uncertain whether or not they might be infected by the mystery illness.
The sociologist Richard Kearl documented the various ways in which homosexual individuals, particularly men, were discriminated against in the United States.
These included company and government policies barring them from being hired in some sectors, refusal of treatment, and laws criminalising and marginalising homosexual men.
Those brave enough to care for the dying described horrific and painful scenes, made all the worse by stigmatising actions. In other words, the world’s fearful engagement with HIV and AIDS was not just something that people spontaneously developed – it was also socially forged and nurtured through a powerful mix of media, rumours and policies.
FEAR OF LOSING CONTROL OVER ONE’S DEATH
Kearl’s case study of the AIDS epidemic was used as a way to explain how death, or the fear of death, has had an impact on soceity. In a previous commentary, I explained how modern society has done much to sequester itself away from death – hiring professionals to deal with our dead, protesting against hospice locations, refusing to talk about death, and so on.
Many parallels can be drawn with COVID-19, where we engage in various acts that give us some comfort when confronting an uncertain future.
READ: Commentary: Singaporeans queued for toilet paper and instant noodles – there is no shame in that
Modern society’s entanglements with technology also mean that we give ourselves the illusion of control over death – that we can and should have a say in how, when and where we die. Exercising such control takes many forms – from something as simple as doing up a will, to obsessively monitoring our health stats, to freezing our bodies after death (yes, go look it up).
So when we perceive that such control is taken away from us, in this case a virus that does not discriminate – we do everything we can to wrest back control.
To date, this includes toilet paper hoarding, using up our colleagues’ hand sanitiser gel, or in the case of the men who allegedly attacked Jonathan Mok, stigmatisation of and violence against individuals who we think will pass the virus to us.
Let’s be clear – offering a sociological explanation for such behaviour does not in any way justify or condone acts of verbal or physical violence. Just because one is afraid, does not give one license to treat others poorly.
I am also not alluding to the idea that all poor behaviour stems from our fear of losing control, or because social processes manipulate us into doing it. Some individuals will choose to do bad things, and this pandemic is simply one more excuse to hate.
Instead, what I see here is a moral choice for the majority of us. When we feel afraid, we should see this is an opportunity to resist that social media, gossip-mongering fuelled fear that makes us want to do things we will almost certainly regret down the road.
Instead of hiding, hoarding or hating, this is the time to show what it truly means to be human.
Many others – doctors, nurses, cleaners, have rushed headlong towards danger, and it is up to the rest of us to support them in any way that we can.
And please don’t shout “coronavirus!” at another human being.
Terence Heng is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool, UK, where he is also an associate at the Centre for Architecture and the Visual Arts.