It's a Chinese Thing

by Daniel Ng | 5/2/03 5:00am

The word "Chinatown" conjures some very evocative images. Roast chickens and ducks hanging by their necks in eateries. Old Chinese women practicing taiji in the park. Exotic tropical fruits for sale at grocery stores. And most recently, people wearing face masks.

The spread of SARS is evidence of globalization. The transmission of the disease followed movements of air travelers out of China to the rest of Asia, North America and Europe. Latin America, Africa and the Middle East remain relatively free of the virus, perhaps indicating the peripheral positions some of these areas occupy in the world economic system.

Nonetheless, SARS remains concentrated in places like China, Hong Kong and Singapore. While the virus itself infects people regardless of race, many people have come to associate SARS with the Chinese. Justifiably or not, the streets of Chinatowns in the US and Canada are empty as both local residents and outsiders avoid what are now seen as potential areas of infection.

It is only human nature to overreact to situations that we cannot understand. The actual transmission mechanism of the virus is still unclear. While the mortality rate is only 5% (some say 10%), fatalities included not only the old and weak, but healthy young people as well. It is fair enough, given such circumstances, for the average Joe in the street to take extraordinary precautions to reduce the already low possibility of being infected in say, Boston's Chinatown.

Unfortunately, this overreaction extends up to the U.S. government. The State Department and Center for Disease Control have issued travel advisories asking Americans to delay non essential travel to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. As for Toronto, Americans are asked to avoid settings for possible transmission such as hospitals (and presumably Chinatown). These run counter to the World Health Organization's warnings. The WHO only advises against travel to Beijing, Hong Kong, and the two Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Shanxi, but not all of China. For a short while last week, the WHO also advised against travel to Toronto prompting indignant protests from Canadian officials. Singapore and Taiwan were never included in the WHO's travel advisory.

Several reasons could be offered for the discrepancy. The US obviously would not want to offend its northern neighbor and close ally by placing Canada on the same rank as third world China. The fact that Canada was not in the "coalition of the willing" during the Iraq war certainly did not diminish its diplomatic standing at the White House.

U.S. authorities are possibly being cautious. The WHO only places a specific area on the travel advisory list after clear evidence of an outbreak is available. Given the secrecy of the Chinese government and its delay in dealing with the SARS crisis (which began as early as November last year), these warnings may be prudent. The true extent of the SARS outbreak in China is still not known. The Chinese health care system is also ill-equipped to deal with any extensive spread of SARS in the rural provinces.

Nonetheless, I am not convinced that these factors can fully explain the discrepancy. In Toronto, US authorities have been able to discriminate between areas of possible infection such as hospitals and otherwise safe areas. Such clinical detail is missing in China where the entire country, which is the size of continental US, is seen as a hotbed of infection. Going to Tibet is presumably about as dangerous as travelling to Beijing. In a different scenario, would Americans accept Chinese advice to its citizens to avoid Wyoming because of a SARS outbreak on the East Coast?

There is one plausible explanation for this divergence: racism. Not overt racism, but a latent one that feeds on cultural stereotypes and a somewhat arrogant sense of superiority. Like the man in the street, American authorities seem to view SARS as a Chinese disease. The regions on America's travel advisory -- China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore -- are all Chinese societies. Western fear and suspicion of the "Yellow Peril" have a long history. The sight of masses of Chinese people can be disconcerting. With SARS, it becomes a very compelling image: more than a billion Chinese crowded together, infecting each other through close proximity and by communal eating habits considered unhygienic by Western standards.

Media images reinforce this impression of Chinese complicity in the spread of SARS. The New York Times ran an article a few days ago about how the virus could have been transmitted from animals to humans. Accompanying the article was a photograph of Chinese cooks preparing meat on the floor of a restaurant kitchen in Guangdong. Yesterday, the paper ran a photograph of a Chinese woman carrying a live chicken home for dinner. The implicit message is clear: SARS wouldn't have happened if Chinese had proper food handling procedures.

As such, the story of SARS could be this: SARS came about because Chinese farmers lived next to their animals. It was made worse by unsanitary Chinese practices and the secrecy of the Chinese government. Since there are so many of them, the Chinese will go on infecting each other. Thus, places where many Chinese congregate should be avoided.

This may exaggerate the racist element of the SARS debate. However, we cannot assume that race is not an issue. If China's poor health care facilities and opacity are the main concern, why are places like Singapore on the travel advisory list as well? Singapore has taken drastic steps to contain the disease, much to the accolades of the WHO. Taiwan has fewer SARS cases and deaths than Canada, but was added rather promptly to the advisory list after a recent jump in reported cases. Through all this, Toronto remains a safe place to visit.

The facts are clear: SARS came from China and was able to spread because of the Chinese government's initial attempts to suppress the bad news. Nonetheless, SARS is now being associated with Chinese "people" from Singapore to New York's Chinatown through a convergence of cultural stereotypes and good old Western arrogance. U.S. authorities have been less discriminating in its evaluation of SARS risks in Chinese societies compared to Canada. The risks are no doubt real, but perceptions of these risks have been inflated by fear, ignorance and prejudice.