The Epidemic and the “Other”

Article by Sabrina Lim | Illustration by Francesco Moretti

“Of all the things that could kill 10 million people or more, by far the most likely is an epidemic.” The harrowing words of Bill Gates’ 2015 Ted Talk on epidemics never rang more true. The 2019-20 Nouvelle Coronavirus had spread rapidly in a matter of months around the world after its initial emergence in a wet market in Wuhan, China; it’s devastating impacts were soon felt across the world. Headlines on the coronavirus were quickly plastered across all news mediums around the world, depicting a world that has found itself in a crisis.

In addition to a medical emergency, the epidemics have other far-reaching impacts on the societies that it has hit. Countries in addition to a medical emergency braced themselves for an oncoming epidemic of fear where divisions and tensions between communities and those deemed responsible for the epidemic grow increasingly tense – with an epidemic comes an epidemic of fear (Ellis, 2018).

The epidemic of fear is further supplemented by “othering”, an unsurprising occurrence when people attempt to make sense of the epidemic amid uncertainty. (Ellis) Consequently, the communities deemed the “other” would become the scapegoats for the established communities; bearing the blame for the epidemic.

The 2019-2020 Coronavirus Epidemic is an unprecedented modern medical emergency that has brought out both the best and worst in all of us.  The worst being how susceptible we are in driving an epidemic of blame brought about by “othering”.

In this article, I shall be focusing on the roles that media and government play in othering of communities and the devastating impacts that they have on this current coronavirus pandemic.

”Othering” and the role of media

“Othering” is a term that is used in reference to a series of process that result in the marginalisation and group-based inequality. Othering is an expression of group-based prejudices, prejudices that never disappeared, no matter how much progress we had gained towards equality for all. These prejudices lay dormant within societies, becoming more visible mainly in times of great uncertainty and crisis.

The media is an important source of information for many people (Loveless, 2008). The media’s influence over its consumers in its ability to shape the perceptions and opinions of their readers (Ellis) would be critical in understanding the process of othering perpetrated with the way epidemics are covered.

When faced with the news of an emerging new dangerous disease, we would want to know where it came from and why did it happen. People have a tendency to search for the source responsible for the new disease when in times of uncertainty (Ellis). By naming the disease after the location where it was first detected and an attempt to trace the possible origins of the disease shows a cultural tendency to seek answers for such uncertainty, to try and make sense of this new disease with all the limited information that they have on hand to better inform their readers.

However, their well-meaning intentions and responsibilities to their readers could result in negative consequences by stroking divisive tendencies and evoking discrimination and racial stereotypes. In the recent pandemic, by naming the nouvelle virus “Wuhan Coronavirus” in the early news coverage of the pandemic shows a tendency to attribute foreign-born disease to the “other”, in this case, the other in the pandemic would be the Chinese in several countries where the Chinese form the minority and for China, the “other” would be the African migrant communities of Guangdong.

Reactions to the news coverage demonstrated the ability of the media to create fear and stigmatisation in a health crisis, making this often unintentional “othering” by the media dangerous if left unchecked. “Othering” does not occur just in times of epidemics, but in times of turmoil. The narratives of the media playing an important role in shaping the collective memories held by the population about times of crisis. “Othering” helps form the basis of several distorted cultural notions about the communities treated as the “other.”

From the West to the East

The framing of a pandemic with othering, that distances the Chinese and China from American media consumers, helped reignite old fears about the “other” and disease (Gilles et al., 2013) via bombarding its readers with images of mask-wearing Chinese citizens in its initial coverage of the coronavirus and the numerous news reports on the hygiene conditions of Chinese wet markets helped reinforce the age old stereotype of Chinese held by the West: disease carrying and dirty (Eichelberger, 2007).

 The reinforcement of such cultural notions of the Chinese, inadvertently through news coverage of the coronavirus resulting in an epidemic of blame towards Chinese communities in the United States, is reminiscent of the marginalisation and racism faced by the same community during the outbreak of SARS just shy of two decades earlier. 

The media frames of “othering” are not limited only to the West. In China, the blame for the resurgence of new cases of the coronavirus was directed heavily towards foreigners (Han, 2020.), the African community bearing the brunt of the blame. The increase wariness and hostility towards Africans is also largely influenced by the containment measures employed by the Chinese government in its attempts to contain a second outbreak of the virus.

The regional Guangdong government attempts to curb the resurgence of new cases in practice was highly discriminatory. According to an article written by the Human Rights Watch, while the regulations called for all foreigners to be detained, in practice, the vast majority negatively affected by this new regulation were the African minority community. Africans in Guangdong were subjected to random coronavirus testing, forcibly quarantined in assigned hotels. They were later evicted from their rented homes and denied service in several sectors (Burke et al., 2020).

The regulations by the government could result in the process of “othering,” which then result in discrimination and marginalisation for the individual deemed the “other.” In the United States, there were also several examples of “othering” in the response of the government to the coronavirus.

Examples of which include: the term “Chinese Virus” being used by several high profile politicians like the current President (Bardella, 2020) and conspiracy theories (Sanger, 2020) on the virus origins being shared by government officials of the Republican Party such as the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. Such actions will contribute to the creation of divisions between the different communities; justifying racial discrimination and prejudice against the marginalised groups undermine efforts taken against bigotry and racism.

Conclusion

The chances of another epidemic emerging in the near future will always remain a viable threat more so in this age of globalisation where we are more interconnected than ever before. While governments will in time come up with measures to tackle the coming epidemics in the near future, one could have to keep sight of the “othering” and the epidemic of blame that comes along with the epidemic. Bigotry and racial discrimination will not go away with burying one’s head in the sand or denial, but proactive measures taken by both the relevant figures of authority and the individual will contribute to greatly minimising it.  

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