By Pauline Kerr
The recent murders of eight people in Atlanta drew attention to the anti-Asian violence that has been simmering throughout North America since the outbreak of COVID-19.
The novel coronavirus was called the Chinese or Wuhan flu early in the pandemic, and later on, the “Kung Flu” by former American president Donald Trump.
The COVID-19 name was initially an attempt to separate the illness from a location after people started doing things like refusing to visit Chinese restaurants, or even sit beside Asian-looking people on the bus, for example. The effort was futile – the COVID name caught on but there are still people who blame the Chinese for starting the pandemic.
The Spanish flu, the pandemic of a century ago, was no more Spanish in origin than the Hong Kong flu was from Hong Kong. Canada was blamed for an outbreak of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) a number of years ago, after our modern agricultural practices stopped affected animals from entering the human food chain.
Throughout history, people have assigned blame for natural disasters and general misfortune on a specific person or group. Perhaps it made people feel less helpless, less victimized by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
If the gods caused a plague to punish people for skimping on sacrifices, there was an easy fix – sacrifice something or someone, and all would be well. If witches caused an illness, hold a witch-burning and the illness would go away – and maybe you could get rid of a cantankerous neighbour in the process.
In days gone by, people who spoke a different language or had customs that were different from the main population often became scapegoats during a plague or disaster. So, too, did any group that lacked the power to fight back. It is no coincidence many of the people burned as witches in centuries past were women.
Fast forward to today. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives for over a year. The original virus was scary enough but more virulent mutations are appearing. Some businesses have closed and more are in trouble. Some people will be unable to pay their rent. The Ontario budget indicates it will be a decade or more before our economy recovers.
In addition to the constant threat of sickness and economic woes, we have suffered through toilet paper hoarding, hand sanitizer shortages, frequent outbreak scares, ever-changing government rules and worse. Unlike more localized crises, it is impossible to escape a pandemic, and even with the presence of effective vaccines, no one really knows when this thing will end.
In a more primitive time, we might have held a ceremony to place all the blame on a goat and then scared the poor creature out of town, the origin of the word “scapegoat.” While it would have had no impact on the pandemic, it might have provided an outlet for frustration.
Sadly, some people have found other outlets. Instances of domestic abuse have increased, along with other crimes of violence, the most extreme being mass murder. The Atlanta killings are not the only recent example. Nor has the violence occurred only in the United States.
Perhaps a reminder is in order – spitting at someone because they look Asian and the perpetrator is frustrated at having to wear a COVID-19 mask, is a racist assault, an act of violence. Kids taunting a classmate whose racial heritage is Asian with “Kung Flu” or similar insults is a racist act. Refusing to eat food from a once-favourite Chinese restaurant because of the pandemic is not only racist but ridiculous.
People who indulge in that sort of behaviour might as well go around looking for goats to chase out of the village. It makes about as much sense.
The cause of COVID-19 is a virus with little spikey protrusions, not some mysterious spell or the evil eye. What made it go to every country on earth so quickly is modern air travel, not a witch’s broomstick. What will stop the pandemic will be 21st century science. We need to act accordingly.