Treating coronavirus like a Yellow Peril

This deadly virus is being turned into a metaphor for global threats and Chinese mystery.

Austin Williams

Over the past week, the British press has fluctuated between hysteria about China’s technology viruses plaguing the internet and paranoia about Chinese biological viruses infecting our health.

The recent outbreak of coronavirus in the central city of Wuhan has created something resembling mass hysteria in the newsrooms of Western broadcast journalism. It has become a morbid daily sport to report on the steady increase in the numbers of deaths. The Guardian quoted a public-health academic, Professor Neil Ferguson, who arbitrarily claims that there are ‘100,000 affected by the virus even though there are only 2,000 confirmed cases so far’. A Harvard University epidemiologist tweeted that coronavirus is ‘thermonuclear pandemic level bad’. As the known death toll reaches 130, coronavirus has rapidly become – for the media at least – the new Yellow Peril.

With so much hype around the outbreak of coronavirus – which is undoubtedly a potentially terrible and worrying situation – it is time we questioned some of the myths and realities. For example, Devi Sridhar, chair in global public health at the University of Edinburgh says: ‘You’re probably more likely to be catching flu than you are to be getting coronavirus.’ And to put things in perspective, the common flu kills around 35,000 people a year in the US and between 350,000 and 600,000 people worldwide.

The coronavirus was first notified to the World Health Organisation on 31 December 2019 as an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. By 7 January 2020, the Chinese authorities confirmed that they had identified a new strain of virus and that they were monitoring the situation. The transmission process is still not known; a huge amount of medical research has been invested in finding out.

In 2002, a similar coronavirus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), originated in Guangdong Province, eventually infecting around 8,000 people and killing approximately 800 after spreading to more than 30 countries. This was under the liberal leadership of Hu Jintao, who was roundly criticised for responding slowly to the crisis. His successor, the less-than-liberal Xi Jinping, has been cheered for his more hardline response. The director-general of the World Health Organisation said China’s response to the virus showcased ‘China’s speed, China’s scale, and China’s efficiency… This is the advantage of China’s system, worthy for other countries to learn from.’

One of the much-admired aspects of China’s can-do authoritarianism is the example of its construction of a 10,000-bed hospital in just six days. The uncritical awe that this announcement has engendered belies the reality that this will be an emergency field hospital of the kind typically built in warzones. Undoubtedly, the mobilisation and speed of the construction workers are impressive. But in 2002, the authorities built a similar structure in Beijing to deal with the SARS outbreak – and that ‘hospital’ was demolished immediately afterwards because it was not able to function as a conventional hospital. Too many otherwise sensible voices have been far too indulgent of the hype around China’s construction industry.

Coronavirus is also being treated as symbolic – particularly of disasters that are transboundary in nature, and which therefore require a supranational response. It is a disaster for our time, where people themselves become portrayed as the environmental threat: many are noting that the virus occurred during Chinese Spring Festival holiday, when the world experiences the biggest migration in human history.

The Observer notes that ‘Global challenges like these will test to destruction the ability of transnational institutions such as the EU and the World Trade Organisation to chivvy along global coordination. They serve as a grave warning to those who would bury their heads in isolationism.’ Indeed, it really seems to irritate Western commentators that China tends to want to deal with its own problems without recourse to international oversight.

Christopher Frayling’s 2014 book on The Yellow Peril explores the historic and contemporary force of anti-Chinese propaganda. He quotes Sax Rohmer – author of the Fu Manchu novels, which draw heavily on Chinese stereotypes – who said: ‘I made my name on China, because I know nothing about the Chinese!’. Indeed, China is still seen as an inscrutable ‘other’ (a position not helped by revelling in its own enigmatic secrecy). But maybe, instead of leaping to speculative judgement, we in the West ought to encourage meaningful engagement with China in order to get to know it a little better. Maybe then, problems like a new virus will become a little less scary.

Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project and has just returned from a research trip to Henan Province. He is the author of China’s Urban Revolution and New Chinese Architecture.

Picture by: Getty.

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30th January 2020 at 11:39 pm

W-T-F? Could you write the next comment in English?


30th January 2020 at 11:38 pm

I know correlation is not causation, but don’t you think that it is a bit suspicious that the Coronavirus has appeared just as we’re about to leave the EU? Maybe Banks and Farage manufactured it in order to deflect attention away from our imminent civilisational collapse.

Kent Willumsen

30th January 2020 at 11:38 am

This article is full of fundamental errors.
1. “10,000-bed hospital in just six days”: it is actually ‘only’ 1,000 beds. Drop in the ocean for Wuhan with 11mill inhabitants.
2. “death toll reaches 130”: there have been verified reports of the Chinese authorities are downplaying these numbers.
3. Reported deaths are compared to the wrong infection rate. As the incubation is up to two weeks and the infection is identified late in this cycle you have to compare the death rate based on the number of infected people maybe 10 days ago. This gives a death rate more like 10%?

Garreth Byrne

30th January 2020 at 10:58 am

A Mexican standoff; a Sicilian vendetta; an Irish stew (Northern Ireland); Danish blue (pornography); Dutch courage; French leave; French letters; Russian roulette; Asian flu. Countries get sinister attachments, so nothing is new in nomenclature.

steve moxon

30th January 2020 at 9:05 am

No it isn’t! [Treating the epidemic as a ‘yellow peril’]
The problem is the secretive Chinese state being entirely untrustworthy as to any data on the epidemic.
Making craters in all roads in/out of a region of 60 million people indicates they think they have a nightmare situation beyond imagining, not the low number of deaths and cases reported.
The actual cases and deaths could be orders of magnitude greater.
Multiple reports have emerged — despite rapid state censorship — of deaths being mis-recorded to hide that they are from the new virus.
The Chinese state itself likely has little but the vaguest idea of the scale of the epidemic, so will be unable to report it at all accurately even if it wanted to, which most certainly it has not ever since it took the decision to quarantine en mass — it is essential that they minimise public alarm, otherwise there would be mass movement on foot to escape the region.
Nobody can yet say what is going on, other than it will dwarf the SARS outbreak.
It may or may not be far more transmissable than previous infections, and it may or may not have a higher mortality; and it may or may not target mainly older people. There is not only insufficient information but no basis of accepting any of what little information there is as being even remotely reliable.

Jerry Owen

30th January 2020 at 9:21 am

A better post than the article itself.. a very premature and fanciful article if ever there was one.

Neil John

30th January 2020 at 2:02 pm

I suspect the Chinese and WHO know it’s too late. The big question is, is it a man-made/modified virus that’s escaped from one of the Wuhan’s Class 4 bio-facilities (quite likely from my experience of Chinese s-too-dense in class 2/3 bio-labs), and if it is, is it ‘tailored’ to target one specific group.

steve moxon

30th January 2020 at 2:59 pm

Well, evidently it’s not a successful anti-‘big nose’racist virus, as it attacks Chinese themselves!
We surely can take it that it isn’t the Chinese state’s latest population control measure!

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