The gaze of disgust and fearHAN AE-RAN
The author is a financial team head of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The panic over the new coronavirus spreading into the country has brought up my traumatic experience of having had to bear the humiliation from coming down with an infectious disease.
One morning when I was a third grader, I found spots on my hand. When my mother took me to the hospital, the doctor diagnosed me with the German measles. I stayed away from school for three days. On the fourth day, the doctor said I was okay to go to school. I still had a few red spots on my face.
My homeroom teacher frowned when he saw me and asked if the hospital was sure I was free to go around. Even at age nine, I could feel the disgust in his tone. I assured him the doctor gave his word. The teacher was not a mean person.
And he was not to blame. As many as 13 in my class were later infected with the measles. He was right and the doctor was wrong.
A few days ago, I saw a family of four who were fully masked in front of the office building. You could tell they were Chinese. The parents looked nervous. They must have sensed the coldness and fear against Chinese due to the outbreak of the disease, which has become an epidemic in China. I may have been entirely misled. In fact, the couple could have been worried about mask-less Koreans transmitting the virus to them.
In her book “On Immunity: An Inoculation,” Eula Biss, an award-winning nonfiction writer, studied the blind faith in vaccination and fear of disease in the context of a behavioral immune system, fed by social power, stigma, myths and nightmares. The system kicks in when we see an outsider, immigrant, someone without arms or legs or who has a deep scar on their face — anyone deemed “unnatural” to our long-held beliefs. It activates even against someone who can cause no harm. Risk aversion becomes stronger when one feels vulnerable or threatened by an infection.
Sealing off the borders against outsiders in fear of contagious diseases has been a practice to which human civilization has resorted for self-protection since the prehistoric ages. But we must remember that the gaze of disgust and fear can one day point at ourselves and our families. “Immunity is a public space. And it can be occupied by those who choose not to carry immunity,” according to Biss.