Coronavirus Memes Are Just Australia’s Latest Excuse To Be Racist

It doesn't take much for Australia's racism to rise to the surface.

coronavirus memes

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First confirmed last December, the coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has infected at least 17,000 Chinese people by now. At least 361 people have died, and Wuhan has gone into lockdown. Discontent towards the Chinese government is bubbling up, medical staff exhausted and Wuhan citizens irate. Australia has confirmed 12 cases of the virus.

Thursday evening, on a call to my family in Shanghai, I learnt just how apocalyptic things were in China.

When I spoke to them, my parents and grandparents were playing mahjong in the basement and haven’t left home in a week. The usual festivities of Lunar New Year have been noticeably dampened by the outbreak of the coronavirus.

My 82 year-old grandmother tells me the advice she’s seeing online: “if you have rice at home, you have no need to go outside”, “staying home is the best thing you can do for your country right now”.

R/Coronavirus Memes

Meanwhile, in stark opposition to the reality of what’s happening in China, Reddit’s r/CoronavirusMemes has gained 5000 subscribers since it was started on 23 January, and is the fastest growing subreddit this week.

Numerous Facebook groups have appeared to mock the current situation, including ‘Coronavirus Plagueposting’ that has 4000 members and encourages both offensive and non-offensive content (“OC and non-OC”).

The #coronavirusmemes hashtag on instagram has already reached over 11,000 posts and will only continue to grow.

Posted by Stolen Memes 2: Electric Boogaloo on Monday, 3 February 2020

Jokes have proliferated online about the Coronavirus’s similarity to a certain brand of beer.  Chinese eating habits have been widely mocked, despite the infamous bat soup video already being proven as nonsense.

Sometimes, it’s more ambiguous and difficult to tell what’s serious and what’s not.

Take this article by news.com.au, one of Australia’s most frequented news sites, about four “creepy coincidences” in the wake of the outbreak. It features the already-debunked bat soup, a Netflix documentary that happened to drop recently, and Resident Evil’s Umbrella Corporation logo, as though the virus is some conspiracy theory or AR game for you to theorise about.

These memes are a sobering reminder for people like me that when a disease is racialised, it paves the way for a more overt racism.

Viral Lies

There are thousands of tweets commentating on videos coming from China, viewing it as the chaotic wild west.

This viral video mistakenly identifies Lunar New Year fireworks for gun shots. This video of a man guarding his village with what looks like a halberd, probably risking his life to protect his loved ones, is described as “ancapistan” (by Ian Miles Cheong, a popular right-wing troll, who conducted this helpful survey).

While China’s 1.4 billion people are fighting for their lives, helping each other and making the best of a dire situation, citizens of privileged, white countries act as though they’re watching a campy movie from the safety of their beds.

Oddly, this detached spectatorship has also unfolded in the way Twitter users have been using the mobile game Plague Inc to create fake predictions. The game has surged in popularity the past weeks, so much so that developers have had to remind players to stop turning to the game for false prophecies.

Not only does this perpetuate misinformation, it reinforces the dehumanisation of Chinese people into a disease-carrying mass out to infect the world.

Western Voyeurism

There’s an almost feverish, voyeuristic sense of the spectatorship towards China by people from Western nations.

Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright write in Practices of Looking that “viewing is a relational and social practice” that involves power relationships. They ask, “Who is looking, and who has the agency in the gaze organised around the images that circulate on social media today?”

There is a clear power dynamic at play here.

Those who are meme-ing on people suffering can meme because they are a safe distance away — they are in a position to criticise, to make fun of, and in choosing to make these memes as an act of observation, or commentating on videos of the chaos in China, they are widening that distance and saying, look, we’re above that.

“We’re above eating crazy things”, or “we have better healthcare”, or even “they chose that life”.

While China has been developing at an extraordinary pace in the past decade, ultimately it is still quite poor. Metropolitan areas like Shanghai and Guangzhou have flourished, but rural areas have languished in poverty, so people have resorted to using anything they have on hand as protection.

Twitter has laughed at the lengths at which Chinese people are going to protect themselves when photos are released online of people wrapping themselves entirely in plastic bags or fashioning a helmet out of plastic water jugs.

It’s funny, see, only if you forget how real their fear might be.

Australia Versus China

Australia is turning its back on China.

After the first case was confirmed here on 25 January, the federal government has moved swiftly to begin considering options for Australian citizens currently in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. The 600 citizens would be flown out and quarantined on Christmas Island, despite protests on behalf of the island’s people and the Tamil family currently detained there.

Arrivals from China have now been barred, with Chinese international students finding themselves at risk of losing accommodation, internships, and university enrolments.

Meanwhile, Chinese people abroad are confronted with a double-bind: wear masks to prevent yourself from contracting the virus, but also don’t because you might scare people off. Coughing or sneezing is absolutely off limits, as evidenced by this meme, or this one, especially not if you’re an exchange student alone in a foreign country.

There are even worse stories, of kids being bullied, of workplace discrimination, and even of one tragic death.

New information coming from Australian authorities every day reek of increasingly overt racism. I continue to hear stories of individuals from Chinese communities across the world feeling the heavy consequences of the type of sentiment these memes are breeding.

I hear your criticisms of the Chinese government. I agree with the condemnation of the state censorship leading up to the outbreak and I understand why the Chinese government is not trusted. But the Chinese people, people from Wuhan, are suffering.

Instead of reaching out to help, extending warmth and empathy like we have during the bushfires, Australia and the US are shutting their doors and blaming China itself.

Stephanie Zhang is a queer, trans writer of colour based in Melbourne. Follow them on Twitter @stephszh.