Sinophobia amid a global health emergency

Until early this week, the World Health Organization hesitated to call the new coronavirus infection that first broke out in Wuhan City, China, as more than a health emergency limited to one country or region. But, last Thursday, Jan. 30, in the face of its appearance in at least 18 other countries, and its rapid spread within its place of origin, the world body felt compelled to declare the existence of a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

As I understand it, this declaration amounts to a call for a coordinated global response to a grave public health risk that affects a significant part of the world. But it does not give the international agency any powers beyond what individual states are prepared to grant or recognize. At best, the declaration provides the organization the warrant to raise funds and mobilize international teams of experts to help stop the spread of this disease and find a vaccine for it.

Its principal worry is not China, where an effective quarantine involving more than 50 million people, the biggest in history, is already being enforced with all the means available to an authoritarian state. Its main concern rather is to contain the worldwide spread of the disease, in particular to countries whose inadequate health services and institutional systems render their populations extremely vulnerable to epidemics.

Despite the exponentially rising numbers of those confirmed to be infected and those who have died from the disease, WHO officials have expressed reluctance to issue advisories that would justify drastic restrictions in travel and trade, or the frantic airlifting of foreigners who may be stuck in the epicenter of this coronavirus outbreak. Behind this institutional prudence and sobriety, I believe, lies the WHO’s wish to prioritize the needs of the world community in general over the inescapably politicized concerns of individual states.

There are other urgent reasons for stressing the primacy of globally coordinated action over the more narrowly focused concerns of governments and of other actors. I can think of at least two.

First, infectious disease outbreaks like these tend to trigger hectic scapegoating, or the agitated search for people to blame. That is why it is important that we do not assign any nationality to this new coronavirus. It serves no useful analytical purpose to call this vicious pathogen the Wuhan or the Chinese coronavirus. Indeed, doing so only fuels existing ethnic prejudices. There are countless worrisome examples worldwide. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, some businesses in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Vietnam have been spotted putting up signs telling mainland Chinese customers to keep out. Reportedly trending on Twitter in Japan is the hashtag #ChineseDon’tComeToJapan, an old sentiment that has been boosted anew.

I note all of these in full awareness of how difficult it is to resist the urge to find yet another reason to justify the negative thoughts we hold about people who are “different” from us.

Second, it has never ceased to amaze me how we tend to react to nearly every catastrophe in another part of the world by at once inquiring if any of our own people have been affected. It is as though no disaster or accident is worth worrying about unless there are Filipinos among the victims. I don’t know how many other nations are afflicted with this old virus of parochialism. At any rate, I find it inappropriately self-centered, to say the least, to even think of evacuating one’s own nationals from a country that is busy fighting one of its worst health nightmares, unless there is a manifest indication that the problem is getting out of hand and that foreigners are on their own.

I know it seems counterintuitive to entertain thoughts about propriety and compassion at a time when China has done nothing but bully its way into the West Philippine Sea, or when some of its people behave as though they could do anything while they are here as guests because they happen to be under the express protection of our own government. It is hard to resist schadenfreude when one is dealing with a country that has tended to brandish its newfound economic power like a weapon.

Be that as it may, the Chinese authorities do have a point when they warn us about the difficulties involved in airlifting foreign nationals from Wuhan at this time. The whole operation unavoidably entails breaking through the lockdown that is being enforced precisely to contain the spread of the virus. But, more importantly, no one can be certain how many of those who are to be airlifted are already carriers of the virus. To prevent any possible contamination, it would be necessary to place them in quarantine in a special facility for a given period once they arrive home.

In the end, this exercise in nationality-based humanitarian rescue has no other value but political—to show that a government will do all it can to protect its own citizens. In my opinion, unless they are starving or denied access to medical care, Filipinos living and working in Wuhan are probably safer where they are. The fundamental inhumanity of selective evacuation was exposed recently by an American teacher in Wuhan who refused to avail himself of the benefit of repatriation when he learned that his Chinese wife and their one-month-old infant (who has yet to get an American passport) were deemed unqualified to join the airlift. Indeed, one can find no better illustration than this of the nation-state’s misplaced attempt to demonstrate its relevance in a globalized world whose problems are of a different order and magnitude.