February 01, 2020 06:53:42
I was standing in a supermarket aisle and moving my shopping trolley to make room for a middle-aged woman to pass when I overheard it: “Asians stay home stop spreading the virus.”
I stopped and looked at the woman. Her face was serious, her eyes stared blankly at the floor in front of her as if she was just thinking aloud.
I didn’t confront her. Her voice lowered when she knew I was watching her, but the muttering continued as she walked away.
With 10,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 200 deaths, as of Friday, it’s no wonder many people feel anxious about the spread of the disease and the risk of infection.
But if that isn’t enough, a new problem is emerging: more and more people are reporting racist comments and abuse from those who believe that because the virus originated in China anyone with an Asian-looking face is likely to spread the disease.
Before this experience, racism was something I knew existed but had only experienced via other people’s stories.
But I am not alone
Gold Coast surgeon Rhea Liang tweeted on Thursday that one of her patients joked about not shaking her hand because of coronavirus.
Dr Liang didn’t find it funny at all. Instead she felt offended by racism.
“I have not left Australia. This is not sensible public health precautions,” she wrote.
Several Chinese-Australian friends shared their own experiences when I brought up my supermarket encounter.
One recounted how a waiter had dumped change at his table before turning and quickly walking away, after my friend paid cash for a meal at a Melbourne restaurant.
Another, who wore a mask as a precaution at a shopping mall yesterday, had three teenagers tell her: “See you! Go and catch coronavirus”.
None of these three people have been to China recently, nor have had contact with anyone confirmed or suspected of having coronavirus.
Vitriol leaves its mark
Sydney man SK Zhang, who has lived in Australia for the past 20 years, said since news of the epidemic broke, he has been getting stares on public transport and is increasingly worried about how the online vitriol will affect Chinese-Australian children.
“It’s been a tough week we are very fearful [of the virus] but at the same time we are also being targeted with racism and a lot of unwanted attention,” he said.
“The way I would put it is right after 9/11, people looked at every Muslim as if they were terrorists, and that’s how people are looking at us.”
He said he wears a face mask for his own protection and could sense tension when he stepped on the bus or train.
“Nobody has verbally abused me or anything, but I can feel the unwelcome stares coming from these people,” he said.
“People are looking at us and thinking ‘he’s a virus carrier.'”
Geelong teacher Andrew Bamford, who recently returned from China with his family, said he was concerned about the online vitriol.
“My wife is Chinese. My kids take after mum. The speed at which the Yellow peril rhetoric has ratcheted up has made me alarmed and angry,” he wrote on Twitter.
Speaking to the ABC, he said he was troubled by the misconceptions and sentiments about “closing our borders” circulating online, worrying it could lead to a “slippery slope” and restricting freedoms.
He said it was confronting to think of his children, aged four and one, facing the online prejudice.
“They’re very fortunate to have members of the Asian Australian community calling out this rhetoric.”
And some are taking action
On January 29, some in the Chinese community in Australia began an online campaign to protest what they see as “inappropriate” labelling of the coronavirus as a “Chinese” disease by two newspapers, The Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph.
The Herald Sun published a headline that referred to the “Chinese Virus Pandamonium”, while The Daily Telegraph highlighted “China kids stay home” in their headlines.
Campaigners fear headlines like these will make Chinese-Australians a target for discrimination.
And more than 50,000 people agree with them, with the change.org petition receiving huge interest and calls for an apology.
“No one called the Ebola virus a Congo Virus! No one called BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease] as European Virus or French or American Virus! Please, show some respect and humanity!” wrote Anna Ou on the site.
Meanwhile, examples of insensitive media coverage are not limited to Australia.
According to The New York Times, French newspaper Le Courrier Picard has apologised after being criticised for its headline “Yellow Alert”.
The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten has also faced controversy after publishing a “coronavirus-themed” cartoon which replaced the stars on Chinese national flag with icons of the virus.
The newspaper refused to apologise and argued the cartoon was not offensive to China.
It’s happened before
Asian-Canadians also highlighted that they had been subjected to racism and stereotypes and not for the first time.
Carrianne Leung, who wrote a paper on the “yellow peril” impact of SARS in 2002 on the Asian Canadian community, said on Twitter she was seeing patterns recurring now with the coronavirus outbreak.
“When a disease is racialised, you need to know that the every-day racism targeted at folks is bad, and the trauma and anxiety remain,” she wrote on Twitter.
“During SARS, the hyper surveillance and containment in public spaces, transit, their workplaces, schools, etc were terrible to live through.”
Her study highlighted a history of “xenophobic panic” and of associating Asian immigrants with being “dirty and diseased”. One survey respondent featured in that paper said the attitudes during SARS saw pre-existing racism resurface.
“The racialisation of SARS and the discriminations during SARS only reflected the ongoing and long standing prejudice and discrimination,” the respondent said.
The study found the way the media represented the SARS crisis generated public hysteria and impacted on Asian communities.
“The adverse effects from the racial profiling of SARS, 9/11 and other such events have made many of us question the core values of what Canada really stands for,” the paper concluded.
Wuhan residents are suffering
I’ve been writing about the coronavirus outbreak from South Australia for two weeks now.
My working day always begins with phone calls and texts to my sources in Wuhan.
It’s stressful to hear about the Wuhan people I know being trapped at home or separated from families by the lockdown, all the while living in fear of becoming infected.
But it is not only non-Chinese displaying suspicious or racist behaviour towards people of Chinese background.
Wuhan residents are being blamed for creating the disease, and discriminated against by people living in other parts of China.
Even in China, people from Wuhan, no matter whether they are healthy or sick, are often tracked down and reported to police when they post pictures of themselves on social media showing they are outside the lockdown.
In many parts of Asia, locals have been campaigning to block all Chinese nationals, regardless of their health status, from entry.
Of course it’s understandable that all humans share a fear of death and as a result feel concerned about associating with people from a country where most infections have taken place.
But as I experienced in the supermarket this week, the coronavirus has really brought out the worst in people.
And that is really not OK.
Additional reporting by Matthew Bamford and Erin Handley