Barely weeks after news of the coronavirus outbreak began pouring into mainstream media in early 2020, debate on the issue took on racist overtones.

Netizens worldwide began referring to it as the ‘Asian virus’ or the ‘Wuhan virus’. When stories came out about how the virus was believed to have originated at a night market in the city of Wuhan, from a stock of exotic animals sold for consumption, conversation turned towards derogatory comments about Chinese eating habits and food proclivities. Former US President Trump’s use of the term ‘China virus’ added fuel to the fire, corresponding with a sharp rise in xenophobia and increasing verbal and physical aggression against Asians.

Most recently, with the emergence of the Omicron variant, first detected in Botswana and South Africa, there was a fresh dose of targeted attacks. The Spanish paper La Tribuna de Albacete published a cartoon depicting a boatful of dark-skinned coronavirus particles, with the South African flag prominent on the vessel’s stern, headed toward European land. The German Die Rheinpfalz published a front page article titled ‘The Virus from Africa is with Us,’ next to a picture of an African woman and child. In Thailand, the Bangkok Post ran the headline, ‘Government Hunts for African Visitors’. The publications subsequently retracted or corrected their content, and apologized. But the damage had been done. More importantly, it highlighted the fact that headlines such as these spoke to an audience.

Racist discourse against the Chinese and African nations is not new, lumping them into a stew of preconceived notions and ill-informed ideas about many third world countries, the continuing echoes of colonial empire narratives. In contemporary times, non-Asians have frequently targeted Chinese cuisine for including what are seen as some rather exotic or unusual choices; comments like ‘the Chinese will eat anything that moves’ or ‘they raise pets so they can consume them,’ despite being utterly abhorrent, are common and frequently used as jokes. Africans, on the other hand, have long been equated with poverty, disease and violence, and referred to with the presumptive undertones of possessing inferior status. Asian third world countries are viewed in much the same way, as was evidenced when the Delta variant was first hailed as the Indian variant.

Against this context, it should hardly be surprising that in a pandemic where states, seeking political leverage, took it upon themselves to blame each other for perpetrating the virus’s spread, the discovery of new variants was linked to the same targets.

Essentially, it is a reiteration of attitudes that are already commonplace; all that is different is the excuse. The reason this is problematic is because it emphatically perpetuates racist attitudes that those with better sense have long been fighting. The concern is especially strong when the debate is about a disease, one which has kept the world largely shut down for the better part of two years and has caused innumerable deaths and prolonged suffering. It shifts the conversation to wrongly assigning blame, for ‘spreading’ the virus or ‘infecting’ others, rather than attributing it to the potency and adaptability of a natural organism.

If one is to agree that such discourse is neither fair nor accurate, that it perpetuates the worst stereotypes, the question that arises is: why does it continue? At some level, it enjoys a willing audience which buys into the cliché, presenting bias as fact. Moreover, what is often repeated and seldom corrected — or not corrected loudly enough — is doomed to be accepted as fact. Calling out these attitudes and resisting their use, even when it is done jokingly, is not only the ethically correct thing to do, it is essential to fight long prevalent stereotypes that have successfully ‘othered’ so many for generations.