Reflections on Western Orientalism and COVID-19

Dear Asian Youth,

“Orientalism” is a term that conveys how an exaggeration of differences between Asian and Western cultures is exploited to form a colonialist perspective of Asia that is exotic, backwards, and uncivilised. This idea of cultural superiority, which is intrinsically founded and exacerbated by race, has shaped modern Western discourse of Asian culture, people, politics and ways. It directly perpetuates Western cultural hegemony and dominance, with preconceived notions of morality. The emergence of COVID-19 has led to a resurgence of orientalist sentiments that has real, and often unsettling, consequences. Not only has it led to powerful racial attacks on East-Asian people, it has also impacted the very policies that governments utilise to fight the pandemic.

Orientalism, at its core, is situated on the dynamic of ‘othering’, creating a superiority complex on which Asian cultures and people are judged. Anti-Asian sentiments have already been entrenched in the hostile climate of the US-China trade and techno war for decades, against the backdrop of the struggle between the West and China in pursuit of political and economic world domination. This realm of having a chief enemy in Asia sets the perfect stage for the escalation of orientalist ideals in the context of COVID-19. Another term that can depict this dynamic is the ‘Yellow Peril’, a metaphor for the concept that East Asia embodies barbarians who represent an existential threat to the West. The modern yellow peril prevails in an orientalist framework, and translates into xenophobia and Sinophobia; COVID-19 acts as its aggressor and facilitator.

Anti-Asian rhetoric and sentiments as a result of COVID-19 is rife-- that is undisputable. The virus has become racialised, and it was inevitable ever since the word ‘China’ appeared in the lexicon field of coronavirus. Attitudes towards the origins of the disease itself displays orientalism: Chinese culture and cuisine is portrayed as primitive, whilst the barbarism of Western animal industries is simultaneously ignored. Its failed logic is demonstrated in how accompanying the assertion that eating animals akin to bats is uncivilised and wrong, unconventional foods such as snails, frogs, bears or deer are also eaten in the West. Zoonotic diseases, of which COVID-19 is a form of, is not exclusive to bats -- the 2009 swine flu pandemic was sourced from pigs. Beef, although almost ubiquitous in Western cuisines, comes from an animal that is sacred in India, but never has the cultural practice of eating beef come under scrutiny. Orientalism therefore facilitated the making of Chinese culture into a convenient scapegoat -- at times, even used in lieu of holding one’s own government accountable in combating COVID-19.

Orientalism has also resulted in the often arrogant responses of multiple Western governments -- some that, under the lens of orientalism, should exist as the epitome of morality in its operations. Stringent measures and widespread compliance to curb the spread of COVID-19 were adopted by Asian countries, which partly stemmed from their respective cultures that prioritise collective wellbeing over individual needs. This manifested in practices such as common mask-wearing even prior to the pandemic, and does not belong exclusively to China but to East Asian cultures as a whole. If the degree of political freedom and democracy is the threshold on which Western governments judge suitable procedures to halt the virus, then an investigation into how democratic countries akin to South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, or Singapore controlled the virus would render the argument of ‘autocracy’ ill-founded. Not only did their governments take rigorous action in early days, their people complied, with a mutual consensus that individual freedoms and autonomy need to be balanced with collective obligations, especially in precarious times. Orientalism manifests as an unwillingness to learn and borrow effective practices from the East, as if it would be equivalent to displaying submission or defeat to cultures less civilised, less free, or less developed. It is illustrative of a deep-rooted bias that portrays the East synonymous to authoritarianism and barbarism, and the West with progress, democracy and freedom, without any nuance to the story.

The era of COVID-19 fueled by orientalism has resulted in racial attacks, hate crimes, and a resurgence of anti-Asian prejudice that arguably will prevail for a long time after the pandemic ends. Even more disturbing, is that the very mindset of orientalism has cost lives: many Western governments have prioritised individual liberty over a united obligation to reduce infections, politicised the practice of mask-wearing, and imposed lockdowns only when it was too late. Indeed, many discrepancies also exist; Western governments such as Iceland and New Zealand have also succeeded in obtaining effective ways to combat COVID-19. But it cannot be denied that among some of the world’s biggest superpowers, the consequences of orientalism is grave.

- Jiaying Zhang

Cover Photo Source: News Laundry