German and other European media fan coronavirus fears and sinophobia

BERLIN – The authorities in China are not only fighting to contain the spread of the coronavirus which originated in Wuhan; they have been battling sinophobia, an anti-China sentiment made visible recently in some publications in Europe.

In its latest issue, the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel featured on its cover an illustration of a person donning a red hooded cape, goggles, earphones and a protective mask, with the headline “Coronavirus. Made in China”.

The Herald Sun in Britain goes further – “Chinese Virus Panda-monium”, the headline screams, with the intended misspelling.

It has annoyed the authorities in China.

Referring to the Der Spiegel cover, a statement on the website of the Chinese embassy says: “Releasing such a picture does nothing to the outbreak, but only causes panic, mutual blaming and even radical discrimination. We despise such a move.”

Just last week, the Chinese embassy in Denmark demanded an apology after Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-posten published a graphic of the Chinese flag showing the coronavirus in place of the five yellow stars on the red flag.

And readers of French regional newspaper Courrier Picard took to Twitter recently to condemn the allusion to “Yellow Peril,” a xenophobic term referring to the peoples of East Asia.

The paper, which was forced to apologise, had carried the headline “Yellow Alert” on a front-page story about the outbreak.

The coronavirus has triggered inaccurate, unfair and even sinophobic reactions, but the criticism that Chinese officials were slow in providing information about the severity of the outbreak is not without basis.

Dr Li Wenliang’s plight has cemented the belief in some that officials in Wuhan were more concerned with politics than epidemic control.

Dr Li, an eye doctor in a hospital in Wuhan, was one of the first to recognise the dangers of the new coronavirus, sounding the alarm on Dec 30 last year by writing to other doctors using the social network WeChat.

Instead of praise, he was called in for questioning by the police and made to sign a document admitting that he had made “false statements” and had “seriously threatened public order”.

Other doctors were also warned, and kept their mouths shut.

“Possibly with devastating consequences,” the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung concluded.

But an anti-China slant, riding on the initial lack of transparency in alerting the world to the severity of the illness, may not be beneficial to its trade partners.

Mr Marcel Fratzscher, head of the German economic research institute DIW, draws a link between international trade and the spread of the disease

“As a result of globalisation, the virus has been spreading very quickly. People travel much more than before and economic interdependence is growing.

“For Germany, in particular, the advantages of globalisation must not be ignored. Thanks to our open economy, we have significantly benefited from the growth of other countries, especially China.

“So in good times and bad, we must stick with each other.”

Trade between Germany and China stands at around €200 billion ($304 billion) annually.

In 2018, China was Germany’s largest trading partner, ahead of the Netherlands and the United States.

German Minister for Health Jens Spahn has been reassuring people that the country is well prepared for a possible epidemic.

“If such a situation occurs, we have intensive care units, sufficient isolation wards and equipment,” he said this week, adding that the country has learnt from previous epidemics such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.

To date, Germany has 12 people infected with the new coronavirus.

But the country’s economic leaders are also worried about the long-term impact of the coronavirus on trade.

“The coronavirus would not only affect bilateral trade between China and Germany,” said Mr Martin Wansleben, managing director of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce.

“It could also have a considerable impact on world trade as a whole,” he added.

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