In early January of this year, I hosted my cousin who had just arrived in Singapore from Mainland China. Little did we know, just a few days later, the world would be set into a state of frenzy by what is now a global pandemic. At first, what frightened me about the novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) was how little information medical professionals have about it. However, I soon came to realise that human nature is far more insidious.
On one of the days during my cousin’s visit, she was at a convenience store where she approached the store’s manager for help. To her shock, her distinct Chinese accent was met with the judgemental gaze of another customer who then proceeded to exit the store hurriedly.
My initial reaction to her recount of this incident was to brush it off as an anomaly. Surely, I thought, the bigoted action of one individual would stand in stark contrast to the views of the masses. Disappointingly, the subtle racism that my cousin experienced that day foreshadowed the impending global hysteria that would expose the faultlines of our surface-level social cohesion.
Heightened xenophobia and racism in the wake of a crisis is not a new phenomenon. A prime example is the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak which catalysed a slew of racist sentiments against individuals of African descent, an eerily similar predicament faced by many Asians in the current coronavirus pandemic. One would expect countries with Asian majorities to display solidarity in a time when racism is growing in the West where the Chinese are labelled as uncivilised people with barbaric eating habits.
However, the truth is that in the face of a foreign and intimidating virus, people, regardless of background, still find it easier to deal with such a threat by putting a face to it. In Singapore, a country with a Chinese majority, an online petition calling for the government to ban Chinese nationals from entering the nation was signed by 125,000 people, exemplifying that the ‘Us versus Them’ effect is still well and alive, as much as we like to tell ourselves that we have long evolved past such blatant bigotry.
But certainly, there at least has to be some unity amongst the ‘Us’ in this narrative, right? Sadly, the situation in Singapore, amongst many countries, has shown us otherwise. From cleared shelves of toilet paper, masks and cleaning supplies to alarmingly long queues in convenience stores, the COVID-19 outbreak has spurred many Singaporeans to engage in frantic buying. Of course, some may argue that it is understandable for people to prepare for the worst. However, there is a difference between ensuring one’s preparedness for a bad situation and irrational stockpiling. Hoarding worsens shortages which may consequently drive up prices, leaving the poor, immunocompromised, and frontline medical staff to be the most hard-hit by the pandemic. Ironically, my community, which has always touted altruism and inclusivity as its core values, has allowed the safety of our most at-risk groups to be jeopardised by irrational fear.
Of course, it would be facile to place the blame of the aforementioned societal issues entirely on individuals, for the media has played an essential role in exacerbating the global panic as well. As director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus puts it, “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.” And if we don’t tackle this, he added, “we are headed down a dark path that leads nowhere but division and disharmony”.
One aspect of the COVID-19 outbreak that sets it apart from preceding pandemics is the advent of social media. The rise of social media has provided the average individual the autonomy to gather and share information, creating the perfect breeding ground for misinformation as fact-checking is not a pre-requisite for communicating information on social media. This is especially so in times of crises when many try to relieve their anxieties by seeking information about the situation. Heightened worry of the masses, coupled with the desire of some to take advantage of the situation to gain viewership, can trigger the rampant spread of misinformation that can culminate in social disharmony.
Experts predict that this pandemic will drag on for at least 6 to 12 months and might infect up to 70 percent of the global population. Such statistics may appear unnerving, and it is human nature to fear the unknown. However, we should not let this fear become an excuse for us to blame and dehumanise each other. After all, the virus is the enemy, not other fellow human beings.