Last week, former UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk posted an Instagram story with a photoshopped fight poster depicting her wearing a gas mask while standing behind the promotion’s first Chinese champion, Zhang Weili. The controversial image was in reference to the outbreak of the coronavirus in China and its ongoing spread around the world.
While Jedrzejczyk deleted the post shortly thereafter, it spread across social media over the next 24 hours, prompting Zhang to respond on her own Instagram the following day.
“To make fun of tragedy is a true sign of one’s character. People are dying, someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s child. Say what you want about me if it makes you feel stronger but do not joke about what is happening here. I wish you good health until March 7th. I will see you soon.”
Jedrzejczyk’s failed attempt at comic relief was not only misguided and rooted in ignorance, it was also shines a light on the rise of xenophobia against Chinese communities around the world in the wake of a global epidemic. This article will attempt to explain how coronavirus paranoia has led to an increase in bigoted rhetoric and anti-Chinese sentiment.
Understanding the coronavirus outbreak
Over the past few weeks, a new coronavirus believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, has infected thousands since the outbreak started. The death toll has already exceeded that of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-03 in mainland China with 361 deaths nationwide by Sunday. However, there were also 475 recoveries, which suggests that the virus is still not as deadly as SARS.
Since the virus — now referred to as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus or 2019-nCoV — was first decoded on December 31, 2019, it has spread around the world at an alarming rate, with cases in Thailand, Hong Kong, United States, Taiwan, Australia, and Macau, Canada and even the United Arab Emirates. As a result, airlines have begun to scale back their regular flight service to mainland China. British Airways, Indonesia’s Lion Air, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific, and Seoul Air have indefinitely suspended all flights to and from China, while United Airlines and Air Canada have also announced a significant reduction in flights to China.
The World Heath Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global heath emergency with about 17,205 confirmed infections in China as of Sunday. During the SARS outbreak, it had 5,327 cases, according to the World Health Organization. Many experts believe the outbreak will likely become a pandemic. The ongoing fears regarding 2019-nCoV have since given way to increased fears surrounding the virus. Stigmas have begun to emerge against Chinese communities in North America and beyond, as concerns surrounding a potential pandemic have begun to stoke anti-Chinese sentiment and discrimination.
A Rise in Anti-China Sentiments
Last week, the province of British Columbia reported Canada’s third case of the Wuhan coronavirus. The first two cases were a married couple residing in Toronto, while the third is in Vancouver. All of them had recently retuned from Wuhan. A fourth case has since been declared in Ontario. Since then, tensions have been high in Canada as people brace themselves for a more serious outbreak, which has prompted anti-Chinese sentiments amongst some.
According to the National Post, “Asian discrimination” is on the rise in Toronto, where more than 9000 people signed a petition demanding one of the school boards in the region to keep children with family who have recently returned from China away from classrooms. The board responded by saying it understood “that students and their families are feeling some anxiety” and that it “can regrettably give rise to discrimination based on perceptions, stereotypes, and hate.”
Chinese businesses in Toronto have also reported a decrease in clientele due to irrational fears of the contagion, while there is also a spike in social media bullying, hysteria, and racial abuse directed at the Asian communities. Toronto Mayor John Tory decried such incidents of discrimination and attempts to boycott businesses as “ill-founded” and “wrong.”
“It is ill-founded, and in fact could lead to a situation where we are less safe because it spreads misinformation at a time when people are in more need than ever of real information and real facts,” Tory said.
The hateful comments have even spread to reporters, as a CTV investigative journalist tweeted a photo next to an Asian barber wearing a medical mask with the caption, “hopefully ALL I got today is a haircut.” The post has since been deleted and the journalist apologized for his insensitive and racist comment, though it continues to highlight the growing anti-Chinese sentiment.
This is not the first time that North American cities have turned to xenophobia and discrimination against Asians during a disease outbreak. In fact, it is reminiscent of the SARS epidemic in 2002-03, which saw Canadians and Americans direct hate and bigoted comments towards the local Chinese communities.
Beyond North America, social media platforms have become cesspools of racist and bigoted attacks against Asian communities, propagated by false information and viral posts that have little to do with 2019-nCoV. An example of this was a video of a young Chinese woman using chopsticks to bite into a whole bat which was then used in racists attacks blaming Chinese eating habits for the spread of the virus. At this time, there has been no link between bats and 2019-nCoV, though the woman — who first recorded the video three years ago in Palau, a Pacific island nation rather than China, has received countless death threats and racists attacks since the post went viral. A quick search of the coronavirus hashtags will bring up an endless selection of racist comments rooted in misinformation and paranoia targeted at Asian communities.
Zhang is scheduled to defend her UFC strawweight title against Jedrzejcyzk on March 7 in Las Vegas. However, as a result of the continued spread of 2019-nCoV, Zhang and her team have decided to move their training camp from Beijing, where the virus has now been detected, to Las Vegas.
According to Zhang’s manager Brian Butler, the team is in the process of securing visas to get the champion out of the country and have enlisted the help and support of Re. Tulsi Gabbard, who is also running a presidential campaign and had previously offered to help Zhang get a visa for a UFC promotional tour in 2019.
“The UFC has been working hard to expedite getting Weili and her team here for precautionary reasons,” Butler told MMA Fighting. “I have connected the UFC with Tulsi Gabbard again who has graciously trying to help push things forward.”
Zhang’s decision to try and leave China as soon as possible highlights the seriousness of a situation that Jedrzejcyzk had reduced to a insensitive meme. During an interview with Phil Murphy at Super Bowl radio row, Jedrzejczyk apologized for her actions and reiterated that she didn’t want to “offend someone” and that she would “never fun of sick people, of illness or virus.”
While Jedrzejczyk’s meme is only the tip of the iceberg with regards to the bigoted and insensitive comments that have spread in the wake of 2019-nCoV, it is a testament to how anti-Chinese sentiment arises in the wake of outbreaks.
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