Travis Chi Wing Lau // About two weeks ago, I tweeted out about a troubling experience that happened while I was riding my apartment elevator after a long day of writing and teaching. Little did I know that it would circulate so widely, that it would go viral. In the ensuing days, replies to the tweet ranged from delight to schadenfreude to outrage to straight up hoping I would contract coronavirus. At one point, I had to mute the thread because of the appalling conversations happening among commenters that began to escalate into hate sent to my direct messages and my other social media accounts. I am not in the least bit surprised by this trolling, especially on a platform like Twitter, which in so many ways invites and proliferates these kinds of toxic exchanges with little to no accountability. Rather than respond to trolls or justify the “truth” of my experience (neither of which I am obligated to do), I want to instead reflect on the implications of the responses to my tweet, particularly in terms of the racialization of epidemic disease. More than ever, scholars have a responsibility to historicize and unpack how metaphors of contagion, uncleanliness, and infection become attached to marginalized bodies. This attachment is both violent and sticky—part of what Paula Treichler has described as the “epidemic of signification.”

BIPOC know that particular look: a species of glare that does not see you but sees through you, not one of mutual recognition but of unbridgeable distance. I received this in response to an itch in my throat, which I coughed to clear. Whether or not this individual was a germaphobe or uncomfortable being in such close quarters with me, I am more interested in the impulse behind this gesture, which in its excess and performativity suggests far more at stake. After all, contagion comes from the latin con­- meaning “with” and tangere meaning “touch.” It is precisely in microencounters like these that cultural anxieties about the relations between bodies placed in proximity emerge. A consequence of social life—specifically urban social life—is an inevitable exposure of oneself to risk. What risks are understood as justified, worthwhile, or even unfathomable? To what lengths will we mitigate them?

Such negotiations are at the heart of what Priscilla Wald has called “outbreak narratives” or the cultural means by which we make sense of microbial encounters.[1] As someone born and raised in Hong Kong, the very consequences of these outbreak narratives became extremely clear during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in the early 2000s. When scientists began to trace the origins of the outbreak to the Guangdong province and to local farms, the discourse surrounding SARS became increasingly characterized by “medicalized nativism,” a term which Wald takes from the historian Alan Kraut to describe how marginalized groups get stigmatized by association with communicable disease:

Medicalized nativism involves more than superimposing a disease threat on an unfortunate group. Rather, the disease is associated with dangerous practices and behaviors that allegedly mark intrinsic cultural difference, and it expresses the destructive, transformative power of the group. Representing the ‘primitive practices’ on the Guangzhou farms as expressive of cultural identity exemplifies medicalized nativism—in effect, the contagious nature of those practices.[2]

In an increasingly globalized culture, the networks that enable the emergence and spread of disease are also paradoxically the very networks that are to contain and cure that disease. Yet, the outbreak narrative precludes Chinese people as agents contributing to this project of global health: they are reduced by nativist tropes to primitive, ignorant vectors of disease whose habits and practices must be surveilled and policed. Xenophobia stands in for what is a much more difficult reckoning with the West’s legacy of “Yellow Peril” and greater complicity in the global production of such “contagious” conditions, including poverty. Western epidemiology and medical knowledge to the rescue! 

We see the almost exact replication of this nativist outbreak narrative in the current news coverage surrounding the new coronavirus, recently named COVID-19. The sensationalizing of the fake news story about Wang Mengyun, a travel show host who ate a bat on camera, illustrates the extent to which Chineseness itself has become increasingly conflated with the virus. The footage was revealed to be not from Wuhan at all but from Palau. Framing Chinese eating habits and culinary traditions as “dirty” and “uncivilized” has been almost formulaic in media attempts to provide narratives of the outbreak. Not only have Western commentators, public health officials, and politicians framed the virus as a distinctly “Chinese problem” but China itself, in anticipation of global scrutiny and criticism after SARS, has taken a markedly more austere approach to epidemic management. Long-standing Western critiques of the CCP’s authoritarianism and human rights violations get easily folded into critiques of China’s cruel quarantine of Wuhan. China loses both ways: either it is too draconian in its management of its citizens or it is too lax with its cultural practices and population management. Even in moments of validation of the plight of Chinese people suffering under such conditions becomes in fact stigma by other means or objectifying pity, at best.

Returning to the scene of the elevator, we can see how the nativist outbreak narrative collapses. As it creates “the almost superstitious belief that national borders can afford protection against communicable disease,” the highly-developed infrastructure of air travel renders this entirely impossible. More personally, my legibly Chinese body sharing close quarters with a white American body—living under the same roof—foils the outbreak narrative’s attempt to contain me through otherness.[3] It is the very fact that I am Chinese American, a citizen born abroad, that undermines any hermetically sealed fantasy of an America untainted by foreign contagion. Perhaps what makes such racist microaggressions so difficult to write about are their ubiquity, their unbearable banality in that they, too, mutate into increasingly more pervasive, resilient forms that escape notice because they become normalized.

Part of how we survive an epidemic is learning how to talk about it more ethically and more compassionately.

[1] Priscilla Wald. Contagious: Culture, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke UP, 2008. 2.

[2] Ibid. 8.

[3] Ibid. 8.

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