Our Pandemic Conditions

In 2002, social media platforms and smartphones had yet to ascend as technological mediators in widespread news media consumption. Facebook would not launch until February 2004. Apple would not release its first iPhone until 2007. Instead, print news media served as a central source for circulating visual imagery related to the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Published by news media conglomerates, these print images, particularly photographs and data infographics, existed as material objects, capable of being creased, dog-eared, and circulated by readers who could pick up the latest issue from their local pharmacies and newsstands.

In earlier work, I analyzed visual images from the SARS outbreak published in mainstream news media, US government publications, and scientific literature. A trio of human-technology-border figures emerged as principal visual configurations: masked Asian/American women, masked white American citizens, and unmasked white masculine experts (Jen 109). The prevalence of the masked Asian/American woman in photographs and other visual imagery highlighted the extent to which SARS discourse racialized, nationed, gendered, and sexualized the global crisis as an orientalized and feminized threat to the nation’s health and security. Photos and accompanying captions also framed this figure as a responsible masked mother who ensures her children, too, are masked and protected from infection. Moreover, by masking herself, she responsibly protects the world from her potential contagion. She is produced simultaneously as a risky and responsible subject, epitomizing both Yellow Peril and model minority. Yet, her riskiness and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. In the era of Amy Chua’s tiger mom, the responsible Asian mother can easily elide into the stereotypical hyper-responsible Chinese American mother, singleminded in her Confucian-influenced approach to child-raising, an approach criticized by many as being too close to child abuse by Western standards and too academically menacing (Corrigan). For those orientalized as threatening and blameworthy, enduring the first pandemic of the twenty-first century involved surviving not only potential SARS contagion and disease, but also heightened anti-Asian racism.

Now, almost twenty years later, SARS-CoV-2 has emerged as the disease-causing agent behind the current COVID-19 pandemic. Epidemiologically, the COVID-19 pandemic is far outpacing the global SARS outbreak. US officials report over 28.5 million cases with over 510,000 deaths as of February 28, 2021 (CDC). US populations of colour—particularly Latinx, Indigenous, and Black people—experience COVID-19-related hospitalization rates close to four times that of white populations (Rabin). The Canadian government reports 866,503 cases with close to 22,000 deaths as of February 28, 2021 (Public Health Agency of Canada). In Toronto, Black and other people of colour are overrepresented in case numbers (Cheung). Meanwhile, a vocal, increasingly violent contingent rejects public health measures as unfounded incursions on individual liberty and economic freedom. This faction denies the existence of SARS-CoV-2 and its COVID-19 disease, while paradoxically blaming Asians, Asian Canadians, and Asian Americans for the pandemic. I wade through these difficult moments as an opportunity to reflect upon how we can make sense of our current pandemic condition.

A play on Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1984), our ongoing pandemic condition is one of competing narratives and epistemologies made palpable on capacitive touch screens and circulatable via social media. In contrast to the SARS outbreak, content documenting COVID-19 pandemic conditions is not produced solely by global media conglomerates. Everyday people produce COVID-19 visual discourse with iPhones and social media, as well as with smart security cameras; they can record, post, and circulate visual imagery for followers to consume, like, and retweet. The spring, summer, and fall of 2020 saw social media circulate user-witnessed videos of overwhelmed hospital intensive care units and macabre morgue trucks, Black Lives Matter (BLM)-led protests against state-sanctioned anti-Black violence, right-wing counterprotests against BLM and local and state government public health mandates, and election rallies during which racist and nativist rhetoric like “kung flu” and “China virus” became normalized. Disturbingly, anti-Asian violence has substantially increased in the US and Canada. A United Nations report notes this increase, as well as the US government’s lack of response (Achiume et al.). Anti-Asian hate crimes increased 717% in Vancouver from 2019 to 2020, and 867% in New York City (Zussman; Chen). Surveillance cameras and smartphones capture video evidence of anti-Asian crimes, which serves to raise awareness among certain connected communities and networks as well as on mainstream news. Circulated videos and photos of racialized and gendered crimes—when combined with social media users posting and circulating personal accounts of anti-Asian taunting, harassment, assaults, and murder—present visual evidence and personal accounts of the existence, prevalence, and increased incidences of anti-Asian violence. These contribute to public knowledge that anti-Asian racism exists, is widespread, and can take the form of physical violence. Akin to the #MeToo movement, Asian American survivors of anti-Asian hate started tweeting about their own painful past experiences with racist and sexist violence. Their narratives addressed the shame of silence—about their families not reporting incidents to the police due to language barriers, fears of retribution, fears that they would not be believed, and silence within their own families due to the perceived shame of victimhood. The vividness of these circulating videos, photos, and testimonials serves as compelling evidence, even proof, that these harms are severe, that their felt pain is real and enduring, and that past and current racist conditions are unacceptable. This groundswell of collective consciousness-raising on social media arguably spread into other influential domains. As an example, the US Senate recently approved Senator Mazie Hirono’s “COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act” with unusually broad bipartisan support.

Our current pandemic conditions are, in part, shaped and constituted by online forums where emotions and affective epistemologies of the marginalized and vulnerable can take form. Users share affective responses, like feelings of fear, outrage, sadness, and disgust, with empathetic understanding prompting expressions of solidarity and support. Adult children express distress when their Asian American elderly parents venture out of the house. Tweets, like “As someone part Korean, my mother has expressed her fear for her 86 year old mother often. So many don’t realize the hate build up that is causing people to attack even the elderly and helpless,” are in conversation with a widely circulated video of nineteen-year-old Antoine Watson allegedly fatally assaulting eighty-four-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee in San Francisco (@AMomInTheWorld; Fuller). Social media and mobile devices now position the lay public as witness bearers who provide testimonies—their gazes fixed upon fleeting yet intense moments of recorded racialized violence that they then comment upon and retweet. Messages of support, solidarity, and defiance with hashtags like #StopAsianHate, as well as photos and videos from anti-Asian hate protests, additionally shape our pandemic condition.

Compared to the SARS outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic exists in a different political, cultural, and technological milieu. Wielding social media as a narrative tool, the public plays a key role in the production of visual pandemic discourse. Given these differences, along with epidemiological differences between the two global outbreaks, I reflect upon the trio of human-border-technology figures from SARS visual discourse that I examined in my earlier work. For example, in what ways is the masked Asian/American woman still applicable for making sense of our ongoing pandemic condition? In Canadian imagery, Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer, was the target of a Conservative Member of Parliament’s Sinophobic tweet: “Dr. Theresa Tam . . . has failed Canadians. Dr. Tam must go! Canada must remain sovereign over decisions. . . . Chinese Communist propaganda must never again have a say over Canada’s public health” (@ DerekSloanCPC). Social media comments decried Sloan’s accusations as sexist and racist (Krause). How do Sloan’s accusations reify the unmasked white masculine expert, such that when an Asian Canadian woman serves as the nation’s top health officer, her medical expertise and allegiances are easily impugned through nativist, racist, and sexist illogic? Do significations of un/masking take on additional symbolic meaning with respect to fears of anti-Asian violence? A Twitter user explains imposed safety measures on their parents: “IF they [parents] have to go to a mall for urgent items I gave them a time limit to keep my elderly parents out of sight of any person who might attach [sic] them because they’re a pair of weak and old Asian couple” (@WWHdotcom). To mask is not only to protect oneself and others from viral infection but figuratively and literally to marginalize—to keep oneself and loved ones inside and away from the gaze, anger, and violence of nativist, racist, and misogynist factions.

The surfacing and circulation of social media testimonies was especially significant prior to the March 2021 mass shootings in Atlanta. User-generated social media prior to March 18 consequentially provided a digital springboard for collective support and organizing at both national and local levels against rising anti-Asian violence. On March 18, Robert Aaron Long killed eight people, including six Asian/American women—Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue—at Gold Spa, Aromatherapy Spa, and Young’s Asian Massage (“Atlanta Spa Shootings”). Public statements made by local law enforcement trivialized the tragedy and, in turn, the value of Asian/American women’s lives, when Captain Jay Baker explained that Long was having a “bad day” as he sought to “eliminate” sources of sexual “temptation” (Carmon). Mainstream news media sensationally reported on the suspect’s purported sex addition, thus casting the victims as racially and sexually immoral—a manoeuvre that reveals how anti-Asian racism is gendered and sexualized, with such figurations of the sexually immoral Asian woman historically deployed to deny migration and US citizenship rights. Meanwhile, US news media managed to underreport a witness report that the suspect uttered “Kill all Asians” during the shootings (Carmon). Thus, the either-or question of whether the slayings were racially motivated or sexually driven takes ongoing precedence in mainstream news coverage. Framing the situation as an either-or conjecture exacerbates the historic racialization, gendering, and sexualization of Asian/American women as invisible in US race and labour discourses, while they are simultaneously made hypervisible as a perpetually foreign, model-minoritized, sexually submissive, and transnational economic underclass. These duelling questions enable skeptics to deny the humanity of Asian/American people, as well as the harms and violences they endure.

COVID-19 visual discourse is characterized by the sharing of localized knowledges and expressions of epistemic authority by an array of populations and communities. Critical studies and conspiracy theories have become strange bedfellows, as they destabilize the epistemic authority of dominant institutions, specifically powerful biomedical ones. What have these parallel subversions borne? What conditions are necessary for our populace to survive and thrive during these un/common pandemic times? Could we strategically cohere a narrative that is grounded, at least in part, in the epistemic authority of medical science and public health, in the lived experiences, histories, and activisms of marginalized and vulnerable peoples, and in mandatory examinations of nativist white supremacy, imperialism, and misogyny? Such conditions are necessary for bearing witness to disparities in pandemic survivorship, for decreasing local SARS-CoV-2 transmission in all communities, and for querying the supposed normality of our pre-pandemic conditions.



I thank Dr. Danielle Wong for her guidance and comments. Her knowledge and insights
immensely improved this manuscript. I extend gratitude to amanda wan for their great
attention to detail.

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