Since late December, the novel coronavirus outbreak has spread all around the world, threatening millions of lives while forcing states to take extreme measures to prevent further escalation. However, the disease, known as the COVID-19, does not only threaten lives but also challenges the natural order of life with various social, psychological and economic implications. One of these implications is the rise of xenophobia in the Western world against the East, particularly Asia and China, where the virus first came to light.
However, the range of this animosity is not limited with these places as traces of it can be seen everywhere, including in various Western media posts filled with bias against Turkey. Although the anti-Turkey stance of the Western media outlets is not a new phenomenon and is usually seen as the reflection of those societies' perspective on the country, according to experts, the spread of COVID-19 provided a brand new platform for such bigotries.
Within the past month, there have been numerous posts from major media outlets, including The New York Times, The Associated Press, CNN International and the BBC, indirectly targeting Turkey. Covering the news of U.S. flight ban on European countries, they preferred photographs of Istanbul and mosques, although there was no ban for Turkey and not even a single case of infection was detected within the country's borders at that time.
BBC took it a step further, using the images of Turkish football fans for an article on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife's quarantine after she tested positive. These absurd choices of photographs could have been interpreted as a simple mistake in normal circumstances, but due to their repetitiveness, experts have interpreted them as a deliberate attempt to defame Turkey, by creating the perception that the country is dangerous.
"I believe that this is neither a result of long-lasting anti-Turkey stance nor the xenophobic sentiments spread after the virus outbreak. I mean, of course both of these also have their effects on the situation, but I believe there is more than that," SETA (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research) Media Director İsmail Çağlar told Daily Sabah.
In Çağlar's opinion, this is the result of the fact that there is not only a fight against the coronavirus but also a fight of countries against each other.
"When this virus will be wiped out from the world entirely, let's say, in three months, there will be a brand new world order. Since Turkey has been conducting the process of fighting the virus in a more planned manner with everything mostly under control, unlike many other countries, it has a major potential to become the rising star of that new order in the post-coronavirus world," Çağlar said.
Perception operation against Turkey
He added that these instances of media disinformation are an attempt to damage Turkey's advantageous situation.
"It is an attrition campaign against Turkey. They want Turkey to suffer the damage that they received and be as disadvantageous as them. It is a systematic policy, more than basic hostility," he highlighted.
In a Twitter message on the issue, Gülnur Aybet, senior adviser to the president of the Republic of Turkey, said: "The U.S. bans flights from Europe due to coronavirus. Turkey is not even included in the list of countries covered in that ban. But the photos under that headline are those from Turkey.. go figure.. oh and in cases like this, we’re considered to be part of Europe."
In another Twitter message, Industry and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank underlined the same point, adding, "This mindset should be quarantined like coronavirus."
He also attached two photos the newspaper published alongside its stories, of scenes inside and outside Istanbul mosques. One shows a member of the Istanbul's Municipality disinfecting the Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the other one shows people walking in front of the construction site for a mosque in Istanbul's main Taksim Square in Beyoğlu district.
For Ali Çınar, the president of the U.S.-based Turkish Heritage Organization, Western media has been carrying out a perception operation against Turkey on almost every issue.
"When we compare it to Turkey, we can see that Europe has failed in its fight against the coronavirus. No one has an easy time in acknowledging Turkey's success in this topic. That's why Western media does not hesitate to continue its defaming policy against Turkey even at such vulnerable times," Çınar highlighted, indicating that the claims of objective journalism have failed through these "mistakes."
The Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., also criticized CNN International for "deliberately" using unrelated Istanbul photographs in news on coronavirus developments in the U.S.
"It is deplorable that @CNN deliberately and insistently publishes photos from Istanbul in its coverage on #Covid_19 developments in the US," the embassy said on Twitter.
"@CNN has to explain to its readers the logic of using a picture of a mosque in Istanbul in news concerning visits to #Congress or CA prisons," it wrote, referring to the U.S. state of California.
On social media, thousands of Turkish citizens also criticized the misleading photos.
“It is far from a mere coincidence,” said Zeliha Eliaçık, author and researcher, underlining that this insistence of the Western media’s wrong representation of Turkey should be seen as a perception operation against the country that aims to distract from true focal point of the pandemic. Eliaçik said it is not believable to assume that such media groups used these pictures by mistake considering the fact that they constantly claim to be the ones who claim to hold the most objective and professional journalism principles. Eliaçık said Turkey’s response to the issue eventually forced some of these pictures to be removed and prompted an apology.
“I believe the West has an arrogant stance thinking that they can make people buy anything, even the lies. However, now Turkey reacts,” she added.
Xenophobia fueled against Asians
However, the bias against Turkey is part of a larger problem in the West. Many incidents and expert opinions show that there is an overall rise in xenophobic sentiments in the Western world in the post-coronavirus environment. Many believe that the spread of the virus enabled an excuse for the already existing but hidden feelings to come to the surface and allowed people to express these fractious ideas loudly. There is even a Wikipedia page already on the issue, titled "xenophobia and racism related to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic," listing the hate crimes that mostly took place in Western countries.
There have been several reported cases so far, mostly Chinese people reporting that they have been facing racism, even to the point of being exposed to violent acts. For instance, in Italy, where more than 300,000 Chinese people live and 5 million visited in 2018 before the country was quarantined, some Chinese tourists were forbidden to enter into the touristic spots while others have been insulted in restaurants and cafes.
According to Eliaçık, it is clear that the far-right movements in Europe will exploit the pandemic and make propaganda suggesting that the bad things come from the outside world only to doom the continent.
“All kinds of apocalyptic scenarios would only benefit the far-right ideologies,” she said, giving examples of European countries ending assistance even to each other by closing the borders.
“Isn’t it ironic that when the EU refused to assist Italy, China came to help out the country?” Eliaçık asked.
However, according to Çınar, there is a reason why the West adopted an aggressive stance against China in this period.
"The West became uncomfortable with the fact that China revealed the existence of the virus quite late. If this virus emerged in the West, the whole world would be aware of it immediately. Everyone should accept that China did wrong this time," he expressed, adding that the two sides would continue to blame each other for causing the virus to spread.
In France, the Chinese community started a hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus, meaning "I am not a virus," as the xenophobic incidents rose in the country. A Chinese Twitter user wrote: “Not all Asians are Chinese. Not all Chinese were born in China and not all have been there. An Asian who coughs doesn’t have the #coronavirus. Insulting an Asian because of the virus is like insulting a Muslim because of the bombings.”
Eliaçık further emphasized xenophobia against the Asians would eventually fuel racism and discrimination against Muslims since the focus of the far-right ideologies in the continents was already shifted against the Islam. “Asians would be added to the target point of the hatred, alongside the Muslims,” she said.
"When we look at the Western countries and their measures against the plague, we see that they failed to take even some essential preventive measures that are normally in their capacity. I believe that the underlying reason in that is their initial perspective over the virus' being originated in China," Çağlar said.
Muslim communities across the world have suffered numerous hate attacks in recent years with many blaming the surge of attacks on an anti-Muslim discourse existing in the media and supported by politicians, most notably in Western countries. The marginalization of Muslim communities has paved the way for public desensitization, turning it into a widespread sociological issue. Some countries have just started to report anti-Muslim attacks, while others have yet to do so.
According to Çağlar, the Western countries lagged behind in preventive measures due to the "Orientalist" perceptions such as: "It's in China, it would not reach us. It emerged due to the circumstances in China because they are not as clean as us. It spread quickly because China failed to properly conduct the process. The same scenario would not happen in Europe because we are more rational."
In Eliaçık’s opinion, societies look for a scapegoat in times of crises when there is the rise of fear and insecurity.
“Expectedly, coronavirus would fuel the bias against China within European people since it was already being represented as a totalitarian power and threat that is on rise,” she said, adding that the idea of whatever comes from China is dangerous would increase even more, turning the virus into a political tool.
Politicians' rhetoric fuels racism
Some of the politicians' rhetoric during the process also fueled the racism against Asians. U.S. President Donald Trump called the virus “Chinese virus” on Twitter and named it after China, claiming that it is not a racist term since it was given for the fact that the virus first emerged in China. However, his identification of a virus with a race caused massive outrage in the country and the world as many stated that such rhetoric would only cause more problems rather than solving the existing ones.
"We attribute most of Trump's unusual statements to his irrationality. However, in this situation, his remarks on the virus are a reflection of his society's perspective on the issue," Çağlar expressed.
Previously, back in 2015, new guidelines for naming viruses were released by the public officials to avoid naming them in a discriminatory and racist way.
“Trump seems to enjoy the peace of finally finding yet another enemy that he can declare his power against,” Eliaçık said, adding that apart from his bigoted remarks, the fact that he offered German company Curevac to produce medicine only for the U.S. is another example that feeds this argument.
Reminding that there have always been xenophobia and racism within Western communities, Çınar said it is illegal for physicians and health care providers to discriminate against people based on race, religion or language.
"That's why I believe that some leaders hold onto a populist stance and rhetoric that would benefit them in domestic politics," he added.
As the number of reported incidents go up, countries with large Chinese populations felt the need to take preventive measures. In Canada, Trudeau and the mayor of Toronto, John Tory, condemned the attacks against the Chinese-Canadians while in Italy, President Sergio Mattarella visited a primary school in Rome where half of its students are Chinese. In the Netherlands, a petition has started with the name "We are not viruses," and gained more than 57,600 signatures. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also made a call on the issue.
"Like COVID-19, racism and xenophobia are contagious killers," she said. "In the current context, we, at this council, need to come together and work for the common good by maintaining physical distances between us. But our conviction, and our determination to advance human rights, are as forceful as they have ever been," Bachelet said.
Regarding whether or not there is some kind of an Asian-phobia that emerged in the post-coronavirus West, Çağlar said "absolutely."
"We can see the reflection of it both in Western societies and the media. There is a constant flow of violence against the Asians," he added, indicating that considering that there is a trend of rising xenophobia in the West over the last decade, these new developments are not very surprising.
Çınar, on the other hand, stated that he does not believe that Sinophobia exists; however, there is the tendency to maintain a distance from Asians.