The Prejudice Virus

An article about a Brazilian infected with Coronavirus included the photo of a Chinese couple

"The first case of coronavirus in Brazil is from a Brazilian who came from Italy. The photo in the article is of two Asians. Damn it, Folha".

A Folha reader said this on social media, criticizing the choice of a photo that illustrates a story published by Folha on Tuesday (25).

Although the article talks about the first Coronavirus case identified in the country—a Brazilian who returned from a trip to Italy—the image chosen to accompany the article is that of a Chinese man and woman.

According to the Editorial Handbook, images (photos, videos, and infographics) are not mere props. They should be informative, as they act as a gateway to the newspaper and increase the visibility of the content on social networks and search engines.

The photo in question fulfills this function: it depicts a member of a Chinese medical team who says goodbye to his family to help with coronavirus control efforts.

The image also draws attention because it is emotion. The woman appears emotional in the image.

The point is that, since there was a greater volume of news about the outbreak, readers, viewers, and Internet users have been bombarded with thousands of images of Asians associated with the advances of the disease.

What at first seemed harmless—after all, the outbreak originated in China—started to fuel a powerful fire: that of prejudice, which always gains strength amid a scenario of fear and ignorance.

In this contested moment, the other becomes the target of explicit displays of racism.

It no longer matters whether the person was in China or countries under alert from health authorities. If it's Asian, it is seen as a risk — something that, even without intention, is reinforced when a photo of a Chinese couple accompanies an article about a Brazilian who was infected in Italy.

The association of epidemics with an ethnic group, a nation or a particular community is a recurring feature of medical history.

Syphilis, for example, was once known as Italian, French, American, among others. The HIV virus has already been directly associated with homosexuals, fostering not only pain and prejudice but delays in clarifying the disease and in containing it.

What is perhaps new is the greater mobility of people around the world and the rapid flow of (dis) information.

For another reader, it would be "time for the world to demand that China instruct its people to eat differently, stop eating wild animals of all species and insects, thus preventing epidemics."

The origin of the coronavirus has not been fully clarified. The very idea that China, the most populous country in the world and incredibly diverse, has an eccentric diet is a prejudice.

On the internet, one of the images circulating is that of a market, supposedly located in China, which sells all kinds of animals. Fact-checking agencies verified that the market is in Indonesia and that the image predates the epidemic. Social media stuff? Not only.

On Friday (28), it was possible to see a commentator from a news channel briefly say the following: that China shows its developed side in its efforts to maintain and resume industry. But this comes, she said, after it already showed its backwardness, represented by its animal markets.

Without any contextualization, this phrase was the result of ignorance and prejudice.

It is not surprising that Asians face suspicious looks and experience fear and humiliation. And that first reader was bothered by the photo included in the story.

Although it adds information, there is the symbolic aspect of the image: the connection between the virus and the Asians, reinforcing prejudice.

An excellent way to tackle contamination by prejudice is to offer information — something that the Ministry of Health and the press, in general, have been doing well.

Folha has been producing good reporting on the subject, including addressing the concerns of Brazilians of Asian descent.

It is not the first time that a pandemic has given vent to our lowest instincts, nor will it be the last.

There are no culprits, but victims and a majority thirsty for information.

On Thursday (27), the cover of Folha showed images of people wearing masks at Guarulhos airport, in São Paulo, at a Champions League match in Madrid, at the Eiffel tower, and in São Pedro square, in Italy. The news is that there are more new cases of coronavirus outside China than in the country. This is the way to good coverage.

Flavia Lima

A Reporter specializing in economics, she graduated in social sciences from USP and in law from Mackenzie. She has been the ombudsman for Folha since May 2019.

Translated by Kiratiana Freelon