It’s understandable that there is anxiety and fear around the coronavirus, however, the outbreak has transformed that into an antagonist environment, with many weaponising the virus and using it as a justification for xenophobia. I have seen it on my social media accounts with one friend after another recounting their experiences with xenophobia after the outbreak of the virus, many of whom are being treated as if they had the disease, when they don’t, or are trying to spread it, when they clearly aren’t.
You’re probably already aware of the fact that East Asian and South-East Asian communities in western countries, where there have been cases of the coronavirus, have reported cases where they have been the targets of racism with the increasing paranoia over the outbreak. There has been an increase in xenophobia in schools, with children and teenagers of Asian descent have become victims of bullying and alienation due to the paranoia and ignorance surrounding the virus. A student at Queen Mary described her sister’s experience of xenophobia at school, she’s only eleven, and was bullied by boys at her school on the basis of her ethnicity. They told her that since she is Chinese, she is going to get the virus, thereby infecting everyone. She’s so young, she thought that it was true, and harboured this stress that she might infect her classmates because she is Chinese. After a week of this she broke down when she got home; she couldn’t concentrate, she was dropping things, talking nervously and crying when in reality she is quite the lively girl.
Then, when you look into Chinese businesses within the UK, in particular the sector of takeaways and the businesses in Chinatown, there have been reports of fewer customers visiting as a result of the outbreak. Despite the usual increase in sales during Chinese New Year, those who are proclaiming the fact that they’re avoiding the restaurants and takeaways are doing so out of fear of the virus spreading through food, unhygienic working practices and that they sell dishes with bats in there. This is the paranoia that I am overhearing and witnessing on the internet. It doesn’t help with the spread of fake news on the internet, for example, on social media sites like Tik Tok there is anti-Chinese rhetoric against tourists and those who were evacuated from China to the UK (as shown below).
These fears are not isolated to the UK, but affect East Asian and South-East Asian populations in other countries, as well. In France, Chinese residents have been posting about their experiences using the hashtag, #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus, which translates to “I am not a virus”. With the increase in casual racism, there is no distinction between who can be targeted, as Asians who aren’t Chinese are also victims. These moments of casual racism assume that all Asians are Chinese, but not all Chinese people were born in China, nor have they all been there. Just because an Eastern or South-Eastern Asian coughs, it doesn’t mean they have the coronavirus, it’s the same form of insult as calling an Indian or Pakistani person a terrorist out to bomb everyone. In Canada, there have been cases of casual racism, resulting in Justin Trudeau condemning racism against Chinese-Canadians at a Lunar New Year festival in Toronto. Meanwhile, in Italy, some politicians have seized onto the anxieties surrounding the virus to promote anti-immigration rhetoric.
As I bring back my focus to the UK, there have been cases where people are getting up and moving seats on the underground, while some parents urge their children to stay away from any East Asian. The atmosphere, especially in London, has become a hostile towards the East Asian and South-East Asian communities. With the rising amount of panic and paranoia surrounding the virus, many of my friends and acquaintances are feeling the brunt of the hostility, even if they choose to overlook those moments of casual racism. I have had a flood of reports on the casual racism experienced by friends, their families and their community.
Annie Mao, described her experience of walking down Oxford Street with her friends last Thursday, when “some guy on a bike cycled past us and said something” which was inaudible to the group at first but was a way of calling the group’s attention. He then laughed and said to them “I don’t want to get coronavirus”. That same day, “some guy walked past us and did the classic ‘Ni Hao’, which I’m generally uncomfortable with when people do that on the street, but especially considering the outbreak”. Meanwhile, in Wales, Lucas Ha described on his story that some kids just charged into his store and shouted out that the employees had the coronavirus.
Subin Jung, has experienced two isolated incidents of racism and prejudice in the UK, within a week of each other. The first case occurred on a trip to Edinburgh, on the 23rd or 24th of January, before the coronavirus was widely reported through the media. She was waiting for the traffic signal to cross the road in the morning with her friend. Suddenly, “a guy, who looks huge, pointed his finger at me and yelled some sentences”, but she could only understand the last phrase and that was “Wear the mask!”. “I got really scared and so embarrassed. I thought he [was] just a racist who doesn’t want to see my face, because at the time I didn’t know about [the coronavirus] issue”. In the second incident, at the beginning of February in Newcastle, she experienced another round of racism beside Haymarket Station. She was alone this time, but wearing a mask, when a group of men targeted her for wearing it. An individual in the group saw her and began screaming about the coronavirus. “He really treated me as [if] I am the virus itself or some bug. Even [as] I already passed by them, he was still yelling at me. This time I was not scared, but so shameful and angry”.
Sinuo Guo describes how she hasn’t encountered anything directly yet, but “I feel the hostility in public”, with her father telling her not to wear masks in public in fear that she will be discriminated against and attacked. “This is after [sic] reading news of a Chinese student in Sheffield” and “the cultural difference in wearing a mask is the issue” because in Asia “its so common to do so even when there’s no virus, and here they think you’re infected when you do”. She concluded that “It honestly hurts thinking that my dad rather risk us getting infected than wear a mask for protection and get attacked”. However, her colleague at her workplace informed her of the casual racism she experienced, whereby the manager in the stock room made bigoted comments to her in front of the customers. She describes how she “coughed in front of him and he yelled out loud, “coronavirus”, and there were customers in the [vicinity]”.
I am being treated as if I have the disease through association, just walking into my seminar I said I had a cold, and the fact that I went to a Chinese New Year clubbing event with my friends made me a suspect until my seminar leader said it was a ludicrous assumption to make about me. I was grateful for that, but it didn’t make me feel good, to have to laugh it off and think about how my friends are being treated due to the outbreak in the news. The virus continues to spread, but another problem that continues to spread are the stereotypes and racist tropes that are associated with Chinese culture and the East Asian communities that exist in the west. The latter two accounts that have been shared with me are from individuals who aren’t even Chinese, but they have been profiled as Chinese when they travel around due to the ignorant idea that all East Asians are Chinese.
These ignorant portrayals of East Asians doesn’t reflect the reality of what it means to be Chinese, they perpetrate an erroneous perception of a country with a diverse population, because what many westerners don’t seem to realise is that the country’s population is not monolithic but it’s very diverse. Just look at the difference in cultures and languages. Mandarin is the common language, but Hokkien speakers wouldn’t necessarily be able to communicate with those who speak Hakka. Although, when people encounter an East Asian or South-East Asian, there is the presumption that they are all Chinese. This is evident through the back seats of Lyft and Uber cars, where drivers and customers of East Asian and South-East Asian descent have been increasingly reporting a high number of complaints. These range from cancellations due to their name or appearance and ignorant comments. An East-Asian customer was rejected by a driver for an airport pick-up, until her white friend explained to the driver they weren’t travelling from China, and one Asian-American driver reported that the number of jobs that were once available to her had plummeted in recent days. It’s not hard to notice especially when odd things like this never regularly happened before.
An ethnicity is being transformed into a threat under the western portrayal of a disease and now East-Asians outside of Asia are being treated as diseased populations. You cannot simply judge a person by the colour of their skin, and assume they have a virus because of their race, because when you judge a person by the colour of their skin that is racism. I may be outside the East Asian community, but as a South Asian, I urge you to reconsider how the media in general portrays East Asians. Not every community is the same, there is great diversity, and each individual shouldn’t be compared to these ignorant stereotypes that are repeatedly perpetuated by the media. Of course, the coronavirus is something scary, but you cannot weaponise a tragedy, and use it as a way to justify casual racism, hatred and ignorance.
There are no health warnings or evidence to suggest that consuming Chinese food is a risk for catching the virus, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) have reported that the virus primarily spread through contact with an infected individual. Research also indicates that the virus may survive for a few hours on surfaces, but attacking business owners and individuals that you don’t know is racism. The ignorance shown by ill-informed individuals have put East Asians in the UK have made them wary and constantly observing how others interact with them. No, there is nothing wrong with being concerned about your health, anyone would flinch away from someone who has a cold or the flu near them. It is the direct attacks and isolation tactics that perpetuates stereotypes about East Asians as carriers of a virus that is problematic. Their commutes, their workplace and their educational institutions are becoming hostile environments.
If you’re not of East Asian descent, I have news for you, you’re not the only ones concerned about the coronavirus. They are British citizens, students at British institutions and employees at British companies, too. Therefore, they are not any more likely to be a carrier of the virus than any other person in the UK, but those outside of these communities have grouped an entire region and their ethnicities into one diseased lump. I am now urging you to think about the so-called jokes you are making about the coronavirus. I want you think about how you interact with the East Asian people in your life and whether you are treating them differently based on ignorant stereotypes. I need you to realise that within East Asia there is China, Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea and North Korea. They’re not all the same, so cut the crap, and stop weaponising a health crisis into an excuse for racism.