Story at a glance

  • Reported cases and deaths linked to the coronavirus have continued to rise, with five cases reported in the United States so far.
  • History has shown that viruses such as the coronavirus can very often lead to a rise in conspiracy theories, false information and discrimination.
  • Chinese people throughout the world are feeling the effects of bias and ostracization due to virus-related fear.

As the Wuhan coronavirus continues to spread, at this point with 170 deaths confirmed by Chinese officials, so does fear. The virus, currently being called 2019-nCoV, has already spread to 19 other countries, with five confirmed cases in the US: two in California, one in Arizona, one in Washington State and one in Illinois. All the patients recently visited Wuhan. 

Fear mongering, or the intentional spread of frightening and exaggerated rumors in order to  arouse public fear about an issue, has always been an unfortunate side effect of such deadly viruses, such as with the Ebola crisis in 2014 or the spread of Swine Flu in 2009. As public fear continues to be stoked and radicalized, so can racism and harmful bias against those whose origins align with the starting point of said virus. 

Not just in the United States but across the world, people are reporting cases of blatant racism, despite the fact that many of those who are now being targeted have never even stepped foot in China. Some are not even of Chinese descent, but from different Asian origins.

On college campuses

One of the five confirmed U.S. cases of the coronavirus was found at Arizona State University (ASU). ASU officials have notified students, parents and faculty via email that the person who contracted the virus does not live on campus and is being isolated to keep the virus from spreading. Despite that fact, Business Insider has reported anti-Chinese sentiment growing on campus.

"It's hysteria," said one freshman to Business Insider. "I cough in class and everybody looks at me," she said. "I'm paranoid of coughing." 

The freshman also mentioned a social and cultural divide that already exists between the large population of international students from China at ASU and the rest of the student body, stating that the virus "just made it more obvious."

On social media

As news of the virus first spread online one video surfaced above the rest, showing a young Chinese influencer, who many thought to be in Wuhan, biting into a bat that she held up with chopsticks. Media outlets like Daily Mail promoted the video, calling it “revolting” and connecting the consumption of bats to the source of the coronavirus. Thousands took to Twitter to blame what they considered to be “dirty” Chinese eating habits and the consumption of exotic animals for the outbreak, which is said to have begun at a market in Wuhan. 

The problem is that the video, which was shot more than three years ago in 2016, wasn’t even shot in China, but in Palau, where bats are considered a delicacy. Besides that, the market may not even be the source of the virus at all. 

“Rumors can travel more quickly and more widely than they could in an era before social media,” said Thomas Rid to Bloomberg. Rid is a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University who has a forthcoming book on the history of disinformation. “That of course lends itself to conspiracies spreading more quickly. They spread more widely and they are more persistent in the sense that you can’t undo them.”

This fear mongering and its subsequent conspiracy theories can lead to dangerous consequences, not only linked to racism-sparked violence. Tweets and Facebook posts from U.S. conspiracy theory accounts said drinking bleach could protect against the virus. On YouTube, a series of videos accusing media organizations of suppressing information had hundreds of thousands of views, the most watched video labeled: “The sudden lack of new information coming out of China has Chris spooked.”


Social media sites like Twitter are now trying to stave off false information related to the virus by directing users to reliable sources, prompting users who search for “coronavirus” to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Though a spokesperson from the company has reportedly not seen an uptick in disinformation since coronavirus became a worldwide problem, angered netizens in places like Indonesia have launched racist hashtags that have already gone viral, such as #TolakSementaraTurisChina (#TemporarilyBanChineseTourists). In Japan, the hashtag #ChineseDon’tComeToJapan has also trended on Twitter.

Some government officials have even had to warn their citizens about false information spreading around the internet, purporting itself to be coming from the government such as in Australia. 

In Singapore, tens of thousands of residents have signed a petition calling for the government to ban Chinese nationals from entering the country and in places like Hong Kong, South Korea and Vietnam, businesses have posted signs saying that mainland Chinese customers are not welcome.

Affecting businesses 

Chinese-owned businesses have taken a hit across North America, with cases of Asian discrimination being reported everywhere from Toronto to San Diego

Feelings of coronavirus-related fear are particularly poignant in Canada, where another China-originated virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) killed 44 people in the Toronto area in 2002-2003. So far, more than 9,000 Toronto citizens have signed a petition urging one of the area’s school boards to keep children whose family members recently returned from China out of classrooms. 

Businesses in Toronto’s Chinatown have been recording a slowdown, and Health Minister Patty Hajdu on Tuesday said there was a risk Chinese Canadians could feel “somewhat targeted” because of the origin of the virus. Hajdu also said that it could hurt Chinese Canadians’ businesses if people shun them out of fear.

Published on Jan 30, 2020