Coronavirus: Don't stigmatise particular groups of people

Wednesday March 18 2020

Ibrahim Frantz Fanon was a French West Indian psychiatrist and political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique whose works are influential in the fields of post-colonial studies, critical theory and Marxism. Most notably, Fanon was black.

Fanon was still a student when a philosophy teacher told him this: “When you hear someone insulting the Jews pay attention; he is talking about you.”

Fanon, the renowned political philosopher and a leading thinker of the decolonization movement, went on to write in his Black Skin, White Masks, first published in 1952, that he believed the teacher’s statement to be universally true.

“I was responsible in my body and my soul for the fate reserved for my brother. Since then, I have understood that what he meant quite simply was the anti-Semite is inevitably a negrophobe.”

In 2014 a Newsweek cover story showed a photograph of a gorilla accompanied by an inaccurate headline that contaminated bush meat could take Ebola to the US. That point was the apex that properly defined Ebola’s transformation from mere pathology to a symbol of fear of “the other”.

Thirty-four years ago, Susan Sontag wrote about how we shape illness through language: how the way we talked about AIDS stigmatized intravenous drug users, becoming a flashpoint for homophobia and the sense that Africa was the source of ignorance and war; how cancer became a metaphor for repression, an affliction of the “cancerous personality.”

More recently, the media hysteria around Mexican Swine Flu and the Avian Flu “pandemics,” which came replete with photos of faceless crowds in Asia, and drug anti cartel type images sparked anti-immigrant sentiment and a debate about how we racialize disease.

This is the pit we are falling into as Kenyans. At the moment we are right at the cliff, shouting at the top to have flights from China stopped, and we will jump to both our moral and diplomatic death while at it. Any flight now looks like an intentional cough right in our throats.

This is wrong, and no different from what has been meted on Africans before. Unchecked racial prejudice and discrimination will ultimately have a more corrosive impact than this virus is likely to have.

This is to the disadvantage of all of us. Take a tour to the business hubs of this country any day, and the first thing you will realise is the number of people who depend on China for products.

Pass by Woodlands Road any weekday, and you will not miss a number of Kenyans queuing for an opportunity to visit China. Currently, we have to realize there are Kenyans who equally live in China. But imagine what now the anxieties are informing the daily lives of people who find themselves so suddenly vulnerable

In the case of Ebola, multitudes in Africa ,ourselves included, were particularly upset by photos of African villages—some of which were taken before the outbreak occurred—that “emphasized how primitive, how ostensibly crude, and how different the people you saw in those images were from the average Western nationals. There was an effort to, if anything, exaggerate the exotic.

The foreign sense that was attached to images of Africa was a way to magnify the ‘us and them’ differences that human beings are prone to make.

In our case, coronavirus is the relatable situation, an elixir we have drunk from so much in terms of bile, but nevertheless, a poisoned chalice. This is a larger problem, that we are at a point where people are on their business and any Asian face is suspect, and that any flight that arrives from China is ‘wrong’.

Xenophobia is growing around this, but we are into deep into the picture to see ourselves from the frame. Politicians, religious leaders and pundits alike have responded to coronavirus with xenophobia, the intense and irrational fear and hatred of people from other countries, China in particular.

It is easy to ignore the lunacy spewing around and it’s not like this is a new phenomenon. Historically, extremists have used public health and fear mongering to scapegoat immigrants. As appalling as this is, what is truly frightening is that xenophobic attitudes permeate public discourse and public policy.

Simply, by allowing racist fear mongers to use public health as a shield to promote their agenda, we give way to policies that allows for dehumanization of immigrant communities and offer consent for those who wish to violently express their hate. We see this play out in many countries around the world.

There is a certain feeling of deja vu with the public health and media handling of the outbreak, comparing it to the beginning of the HIV/Aids pandemic. Similarities include uncertainty about the epidemiology, and the stigmatising of particular groups of people. Fear, anxiety and blame result when people do not trust the message or the messenger.

Viruses have no passports or nationality, but a basic tenet of a public health strategy is to identify those most at risk and to treat them and prevent infection to others. Minimising discrimination and stigma is a key part of this strategy.

In essence, xenophobia is the disease you should be afraid of, not coronavirus.

Mr Leo is a public policy analyst. [email protected]