At my family’s Lunar New Year dinner, over steamed greens and fried pippies, one thing dominated our conversation: the coronavirus outbreak.
We were eating at a Chinese restaurant in Rhodes - a sleepy Sydney suburb known largely for being home to a cramped cinema, an Ikea and plenty of Asian-Australian families. People who looked and lived like us, essentially. Give or take an aunt or a puppy.
On any other night that would’ve given my parents a small thrill. That weekend, however, we had all been reading the news. The headlines say families like ours were also families who may have recently holidayed in mainland China; perhaps not far from the province of Hubei, possibly near Wuhan — a city that’s now known as the epicentre of a powerful virus that has so far infected thousands of people across multiple countries.
In times of crisis, our language is important. How we talk about each other is important.
What makes the Wuhan outbreak threatening is that it’s a strain of coronavirus that has never before been detected. That is to say, a new member in the viral family that causes anything from the common cold to the widespread 2002 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and 2015 MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome) epidemics.
In mild cases, symptoms aren’t so different from the flu: fever, coughs, sore throat, shortness of breath. But in Wuhan, where the most severely ill reside, the end game could mean viral pneumonia and fatal organ failure.
At dinner a message came through on my parents’ WeChat thread. Rumour has it that a new coronavirus case has been reported in Burwood. We did a mental scan of the last time we combed its familiar streets. (Will respiratory failure be the price of that one bubble tea?) I pictured a family just like ours in Burwood, making similar dinner table speculations about Rhodes.
Like many large-scale outbreaks, there is a sense that things are happening at break-neck pace.
On Monday, 2700 coronavirus cases were confirmed by China, by Wednesday morning the number has jumped to nearly 6000. And while no person-to-person transmission has been reported in Australia of the five known cases to date, something else — it seems — has been brewing.
Beneath the biological threat of an illness often lurks another contagion: the idea that like a bad movie, there are disease-carrying villains to be blamed. Soon, this gets into the collective water of our subconscious. Under these conditions, xenophobia can spread like a parallel sickness.
Across the internet, a widely-shared video of a young Chinese woman eating ‘bat soup’ sparked anger about “dirty Chinese eating habits”. It was later found that the video was taped years ago in the Pacific Island of Pilau, and not Wuhan. And that, while disturbing, had little to do with the outbreak.
Closer to home, a fake media release which claims to have been issued by Queensland Department of Health is circulated on Twitter, warning people to stay away from “all populated areas with Chinese nationals of ratio of 1 to 3 non-Chinese Australians”.
It names Brisbane suburbs with large Chinese populations like Sunnybank, Sunnybank Hill, Runcorn and Eight Mile Plains — areas with a so-called increased risk of contracting coronavirus.
Then there is viral misinformation so absurd that it would be sidesplittingly funny, were it not for the number of times shared by concerned punters online. A post, for example, that warns of the dangers of Wagyu beef, fortune cookies, Mi Goreng and peach-flavoured Lipton iced tea - because they contain “traces of corona’s disease [sic]”.
The same post warns of “positive readings” of the virus in the air at a number of Sydney train stations.
Burwood and Rhodes both make the cut. I think of texting my parents, but change my mind when it occurred me that to tell the joke, I’d have to explain what the gullible Tweeters must see when they see us.
“Pathogens may not discriminate, but societies certainly do,” writes International Relations and Law student, Alan Zheng. In an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, Zheng argues that minority groups are often left exposed and vulnerable to “racial profiling, discrimination and marginalisation” when the carrier of a communicable illness is portrayed as “foreign and alien”.
In this sense, managing a public health crisis isn’t just about containing the spread of a deadly disease but our collective fear.
A harder pill to swallow, perhaps, is the realisation that no one is immune to the instinct of projecting our fears onto an imagined ‘other’. Xenophobia can just as easily rear its head within Asian communities - we might jump at a cough, avoid a suburb, or take extra pains to ask Chinese-Australian students to be checked and quarantined at the start of a school term. We might feed off rumours that are shared with us.
In times of crisis, our language is important. How we talk about each other is important. We crave physical safety, yes. But also a collective resilience that comes, ultimately, from us.
On social media, I watch a video of the people in Wuhan - a city in lockdown —-shouting "Wuhan, add oil” ["keep up the fight"] out of their apartment windows in a breathtaking show of camaraderie.
I imagine for a moment that somewhere in the embattled city are families just like ours, possibly eating Mi Goreng and drinking iced peach tea in calmness. Taking a brief reprieve, at last, from the news.