New virus, old racism

‘Corona-phobia’ is a contagious by-product of coronavirus

One year ago, I sat on the streets of Hunan, China, eating barbeque rabbit and drinking Tsingtao beer with friends. I had no idea that I was one hour away from the city of Wuhan: a place that would become the centre of the virus outbreak COVID-19 (coronavirus) in December 2019.

While most of the world is focused on the virus’ death toll, there’s an issue at hand that can’t be detected by a fever scan but is just as contagious.

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Sinophobia – fear or hatred toward Chinese people or the country of China – has become widespread and highly visible in many western countries since the recent coronavirus outbreak.

A French magazine called Le Courrier picard published a print headline about the outbreak that translates to “Yellow Alert.”

In Italy, a Filipino man was beaten and told to “go home” by a group of Italian men who mistook him for Chinese. There were also various prominent racist occurrences online. Earlier this month, the hashtag #ChineseDontComeToJapan was trending on Twitter.

Canada has been no exception to this. Despite zero deaths from coronavirus and the Canadian health minister stating that there is a low risk of catching the virus, fear and hysteria are alive and well.

A Chinese restaurant in Markham, Ont. reportedly received prank calls that resulted in lost business after a social media video linked the restaurant to the virus.

Dr. Nadia Alam from Ontario took to Twitter to share her child’s experience with racism on the schoolyard, tweeting:

“Today my son was cornered at school by kids who wanted to ‘test’ him for #Coronavirus just because he is half-Chinese. They chased him. Scared him. And made him cry.”

This is an all-too-familiar issue for Chinese-Canadians who went through the SARS outbreak in 2003. A spike in reports of racism and sinophobia was reported during the virus’s six-month epidemic.

Kristyn Wong-Tam, the former leader of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto, recently touched on the impact of that time.

“Chinatowns across the city saw revenues drop, as people allowed their fear of SARS and prejudices about its transmission to drive them away from Chinese-operated businesses. People of Chinese backgrounds were shunned at schools, harassed in the streets, taunted on public transits, and many more felt ostracized and isolated from the rest of the city,” she said.

Sinophobia can be traced back to the idea of “Yellow Peril” that originated throughout North America in the 1800s. It perpetuated a view of Chinese or East Asian people as “unnamable foreigners” and depicted East Asian culture to be dirty and animal-like.

After living in China for two years, it became clear to me how real sinophobia is around the world and particularly in Canada.

Friends told me to watch out for what I ate, asked me how dirty it was there and commented on how bad it must have smelled.

My first trip to China made me question what I had internalized and assumed based on stigmas set in place in my surrounding culture.

Society and the media can paint such a terrible picture of Chinese culture, and although “Yellow Peril” seems like a thing of the 18th century, it’s really too bad we still see those effects today in 2020.

According to the latest census in 2016, 1.5 million Canadians identify as Chinese, and roughly 80,000 Manitobans’ first language is Mandarin or Cantonese.

It’s our job as Canadians to stand up to racism and stop the fear-mongering and stigma related to viruses that originate from Asian countries.

According to Canadian health experts, 3,500 people die from the common cold each year, and, so far, no nationalities have been to blame.

Michelle Karlenzig is a first-year Creative Communications student at Red River College. She is passionate about gender equality and Indigenous rights. By storytelling through journalism, she hopes to make a positive impact on marginalized groups and human rights.

Published in Volume 74, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 27, 2020)

Related Reads