Op-eds

Beware of China hate speech

  • Geoff
If anyone can give you a disease, everyone potentially becomes an enemy. Infectious disease is especially divisive socially, and Covid-19 tests not only medical technology, but social prejudice.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Mar 05, 2020

If the coronavirus (Covid-19) infection rate were to take off in South Africa, this country is fertile territory for anti-Chinese xenophobia. It would be a knee-jerk reaction among many, although irrational and hysterical, because the chance of infection is close to zero according to respected people in the field.

It feeds into historical anti-Chinese sentiment in many places. The Covid-19 epidemic has “set off a disturbing wave of prejudice” against ethnic Chinese, said Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, on 28 February.

Infectious-disease researchers are puzzled as to why sub-Saharan African countries, with their fragile health systems, have so far largely been spared from the Covid-19 epidemic.

Is it faulty detection, climate, or plain good fortune? As of 1 March, only three cases of infection had been officially recorded in Africa, one in Egypt, one in Algeria, and one in Nigeria. A tiny number for a continent with 1.3 billion inhabitants, and a miniscule amount of the more than 86 000 cases and nearly 3 000 deaths recorded in about 60 countries worldwide.

Thumbi Ndung’u, the director of a Durban-based infectious disease research centre, SANTHE, quoted in Health24, said he didn’t think anybody knew why Africa so far appeared unscathed. Perhaps it could be that there wasn’t much travel to that part of China. Or “it could just be a coincidence”.

In the Middle East, 12 countries currently have reported cases. Israel has 12 reported cases, the first on 21 February among 11 evacuees who were on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Africa’s vulnerabilities are well known. A 2016 analysis by the Rand Corporation found that of the world’s 25 countries most vulnerable to infectious outbreaks, 22 are in Africa.

Chinese people began arriving in large numbers in South Africa in the 1870s mostly from Canton, seeking their fortune on the diamond and gold mines in Kimberley and the Witwatersrand. But due to discrimination, they were denied mining contracts, and became small business owners.

The community grew throughout the remainder of the 19th century, bolstered by new arrivals. Large-scale immigration into South Africa was again discouraged, and actually prohibited by legislation in 1902 and 1904. These laws echoed general anti-Chinese feelings across the Western world.

It was expected that negative prejudice would dissolve radically after the end of apartheid in 1994 with the advent of the “new South Africa”, when mainland Chinese began emigrating to South Africa in large numbers.

The Chinese population rose to an estimated 300 000 to 400 000 in 2015. In Johannesburg, a vibrant and popular new Chinatown has emerged in the eastern suburbs of Cyrildene and Bruma Lake, which is a favourite destination for many Joburgers and tourists. Currently, fear resulting from Covid-19, has driven away tourists and emptied restaurants.

Overall, however, such negative prejudice is hard to change. A survey by the Pretoria-based Ethics Institute of South Africa shows that, of several African countries questioned, South Africans are the most anti-Chinese, and that South Africans are also “generally speaking more xenophobic than other Africans”. The horrific attacks on foreign migrants from other African countries like the Congo and Mozambique between 2000 and 2008 still echoes.

The Chinese aren’t migrants. They have long lived and worked here, and no major outbreaks of anti-Chinese sentiments have occurred. But it’s something our political and other leaders should be watching.

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