What started the 31st of December 2019 in the city of Wuhan, China, as a Pneumonia of unknown cause has turned to the newest highly contagious internationally spead 2019-nCoV (Coronavirus) in the first days of 2020. The Coronavirus crisis and consequent global panic follows other global public health crises related to outbreaks of diseases such as SARS in 2003, Zika in 2015, Ebola in 2014-2016 or MERS in 2012( both provoking deaths in parts of Asia and Africa still today).
Understanding global panic is hard in many ways. Some commentators have highlighted the side of the politics of fear, a mainstream comprehension of fear understood as a tool of governance positing in this case China as a geography of fear inspired by an event which has a global reach. From this reading, fearmongering is used by big media outlets and politicians, speading fear and making people vulnerable to certain restrictive measures, against the WHO’s Eemergency Commitee recommendations, like we are seeing: border closure, travel bans and so on. In this regard conceptualising global panic just in these terms is purely self-explanatory: it all ends in irrationality, precaution measures and controlling masses.
But I propose another understanding, from the conceptualisation that has been made from affective theory. Very briefly, affective theory proposes ‘to examine the ways in which feelings can (re)produce dominant social and geo-political hierarchies and exclusions’
From affective theory, and particularly within the frame of one of its proponents, Sara Ahmed, we can read global panic and understand how affect is embedded in China, coronavirus (re)marking it a geography of fear, and the Chinese, the bodies to fear (or hate), once again. For Ahmed, affect and emotions (fear,hate, love) are cumulative, just like any form of capital, and thus has its historical development. From European colonization of Chinese land to the yellow peril , to the fear of China and its rise to great power status, to the current Coronavirus situation, there is a continuum in what Ahmed refers to as affective economy.
There is no doubt that particular contexts and situations provoke a certain reading of those bodies affected, in particular when an outbreak of a disease is where those geographies and those bodies are located and already marked; marked different from European, Chinese and China circulates as an “other”- like this very case: a non-clean other, an infected other. Emotions of fear transform into hate, which circulates then easily, getting attached to anybody of perceived similar characteristics despite all other circumstances. This attachment will provoke then new affect, accumulating to the one that is there, and moving forwards to (re)produce perceptions of Asian peoples and Asian geogrpahies.
To be sure, Coronavirus creates the best opportunity for the reintensification of discourses that are already enrooted in large parts of societies. In this case the campaign launched by Asian peoples #imnotavirus #jenesuispasunvirus #yonosoyunvirus is relevant to understand rise of racism from affective theory. At the same time the travel bans (particularly in the US), disruptions in Asian markets and in key economic areas or even Taiwan trying to take political advantage of the situation respond to similar affective logics, nontheless expressed differently depending on the politics, history, and contexts that shape particular perceptions of China and its peoples.
Finally, this reading does not oppose others, but can help in explaining beyond “precaution” or “risk” how affect circulates, why are some measures imposed and wonder if there would have been such cases of racism against peoples from Asia in Europe had it been an European outbreak.