Coronavirus Racism Has Made Its Way to TikTok


coronavirus racism tik tok: Hand holds a cellphone
(Photo: iStock)

If you have any faith left in humanity, prepare to have it completely erased. Because judging by the way people are reacting to the coronavirus crisis, most of us are definitely trash. With 170 deaths and thousands of confirmed cases in China, the coronavirus has been on everyone’s mind in recent weeks. ICYMI, the coronavirus refers to a series of viruses (there are seven potential coronaviruses you can be infected with) that range in seriousness from the common cold to more viral and serious diseases like SARS. Speaking to Chatelaine, Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, said that “This particular coronavirus (aka 2019-nCoV) is emerging somewhere in the middle.”

Per Bogoch, what makes this particular strain of coronavirus so scary is how rapidly it’s spreading since the first cases were confirmed on December 31, 2019. With all of this information circling about, it’s easy to see why the public is so frightened. And with travel bans increasing in countries across the world and news of mass quarantines, what started out as a quiet murmur is quickly turning into a frantic panic about the threat of the coronavirus. Which is understandable. What’s not so understandable? The racism linked to it. Because the first confirmed cases of the virus were in Wuhan, China, people have taken it upon themselves to espouse xenophobic and racist sentiments towards members of the Chinese community around the world, including Chinese-Canadians here in Canada, regardless of whether or not said people have recently been to the country (and thus, in theory, could be at a higher risk of potentially being infected). These actions have ranged from barring anyone Chinese from entering an establishment to having people scramble away from them on public transit. They’re pretty much reacting like this:
@itstimofeeSo you recognize where this was filmed? #fyp #foryou♬ original sound – itstimofee

And now, it seems that the coronavirus racism has made its way—like all things—to social media, in the form of TikTok videos. While scrolling through the Gen Z-friendly app, tons of tasteless videos appear when you search “coronavirus.” And while some of these vids are created by Asian content creators and seem aimed at showing how legit bonkers and stupid everyone else is being…

@jeenie.weenieBetter safe than sorry #coronavirus #besafe #foryou #fyp #trending #news #lysol #viral #asianstruggles♬ Hell 2 da Naw – Bullwinkle Boyz

…a lot are pretty frickin’ offensive. Several videos make fun of Chinese restaurants, showing TikTok users miming horror when they see the chef sneeze (into their elbow, I might add!), while others lean into viral songs and trends on the app. Take @mikethecop, whose video of himself running in horror through the airport after seeing a plane land from China is a) not funny and b) xenophobic.

@mikethecopI don’t want no virus! (Don’t let this flop) #fyp#coronavirus#offduty♬ Run – AWOLNATION

And these vids are not only seriously disappointing (I thought younger generations were better than this?!), but also kind of dangerous.

Honestly, we shouldn’t be surprised at the coronavirus reaction

While the proliferation of racist sentiments via viral videos on TikTok might be initially shocking, we should check ourselves (and our expectations) because if recent history is anything to go off of, we shouldn’t be all that surprised that people are using an illness that has caused over 150 deaths for comedic content. Just look at the reason World War III was trending at the beginning of January. For those who missed it, the trend was sparked after Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani was killed by an American airstrike on January 3. The strike, which was carried out at the behest of President Donald Trump, further strained already fragile relations between the United States and Iran, with the latter vowing “harsh retaliation.”

They were serious, fighting words, and of course, the internet reacted how it knows best: with jokes and memes. Tons of people online started tweeting about being drafted into the army, joking that dying in a war would be better than living through 2020 and pretty much just making a mockery of a serious issue.

Read this next: This Is Why World War III Is Trending

The responses online could have been linked to a lot of things, paramount among them our desensitization to warfare, humour as a coping mechanism (because the world is pretty fucked up) and the idea that people felt they could joke about World War III because they assumed it would never actually affect them in the Western world.

And this response to the coronavirus feels like a similar thing. It’s easy to make light of something scary when you’re safe in the knowledge (or at least assume) that it likely won’t affect you. (The Public Health Agency of Canada says that the risk to Canadians and Canadian travellers is relatively low, and the severity is pretty low-key compared to the flu). Which is great for us here in Canada, but completely overlooks the fact that people in China have died or are very sick.

And joking about the virus at all is incredibly offensive to people who are actually affected by it and belittles the grievousness of an urgent health concern.

But that doesn’t make it OK

While it might be easy to write off videos like @mikethecop’s as harmless—after all, one could argue, some flight routes to China were suspended for fear that anyone may have come in contact with the virus—the fact remains that they’re still harmful, because they spread stereotypes and stigma about Chinese people as a whole. In a personal essay for The Guardian on the stigma associated with the coronavirus, Sam Phan, a master’s student from the U.K. wrote: “This week, my ethnicity has made me feel like I was part of a threatening and diseased mass. To see me as someone who carries the virus just because of my race is, well, just racist.”

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And viewing people en masse in this way can have dangerous repercussions. Since the coronavirus was first detected, people have reported the spread of anti-Chinese sentiment and instances of violence towards people who are—or simply appear like they could be—Chinese.

But this racism doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s steeped in stereotypes of Asian people as fearsome figures (linked to “yellow peril“). The panic over the coronavirus only further perpetuates and validates these stereotypes, which just empowers racist people and their views TBH.

And not only are these TikTok videos harmful for spreading racist ideologies, but they’re also spreading disinformation about the virus itself. According to Forbes, since the outbreak of the virus, people have been using the app to spread false info, including videos that purport the virus was started by the Chinese government as a form of population control. Which is *actually* horrible. Honestly, what has the world come to?!

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So please TikTok users, let’s just go back to making viral dance videos with our moms—it’s safer and much less problematic.

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