A mural in the Chinese district of Rome shows an Asian woman wearing a protective suit saying, “There is an epidemic of ignorance around ... We must protect ourselves” and holding a placard that reads #JeNeSuisPaSunVirus (I am not a virus), a hashtag created by French Asians in reaction to anti-Asian racism amid the coronavirus public health emergency. Photo: EPA-EFE
by Brian Y. S. Wong
by Brian Y. S. Wong

The West unleashes a new strain of racism in the name of coronavirus prevention

  • The Covid-19 outbreak has become an excuse for some to justify their prejudice
  • They cherry-pick Chinese eating habits and conduct to bolster a sense of cultural superiority, and sneer at Asian public health practices while demonising an entire people in the guise of protecting public health

As soon as I walked into the train carriage, a whole family packed up their belongings and shuffled nervously to the next one. It happened on a train from Oxford to London earlier this month.

I am an ordinary postgraduate student, but for the fact, extraordinary in these times, that I’m Chinese. As the coronavirus outbreak spreads around the world, I have been experiencing a different epidemic – one of racism and xenophobia.

I felt unwelcome. For the first time in years, I was self-conscious of my status as the person of colour in a white space, the alien in a culture whose values I share.

I expected a better Britain than the one in which two of my Hong Kong friends, walking on a Manchester street, were told to go back to China in an expletive-laden rant; where a child would not play with her Chinese classmate because she had been told by her parents all Chinese people were ill. Neither the child nor my friends have been in China over the past three months.

The coronavirus outbreak has seen a rise in racialised abuse towards Asian immigrants and students. Racist speech and acts – practised by a small minority of bigots – are a fact of life in even the most liberal Western societies. What is alarming, however, is the extent to which such prejudice is often couched in scientific language and through culturalist lenses.

Wuhan, the Hubei city at the epicentre of the outbreak, is painted by international media as a city of backwards ignorance and decrepit hygiene, its citizens – “them” – the main culprits of a disease that is threatening “us”, almost invoking the images of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The outbreak is used to justify and reinforce racist beliefs. Mainstream media outlets highlighted the apparently Chinese custom of eating exotic animals (while ignoring the eating habits of other cultures) and the selfish and unhygienic conduct of cherry-picked examples of Chinese tourists. Some also zoomed in on the defects of the Chinese regime, using the crisis to score political points.

Coronavirus crisis reveals high price of China’s authoritarian system

It’s one thing to call out the government for incompetence and lack of transparency, it’s another to cast judgment on 1.4 billion people, treating them as a homogeneous bloc of uneducated people to be pitied and feared.

An entire nation is being smeared. “The China Virus,” Vancouver’s The Province declared. “China kids stay home,” according to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. The Japanese government’s generosity and support has been tarnished by the trending of the #ChineseDon’tComeToJapan hashtag on Twitter.

Asian students who have donned masks or used hand sanitising gel in public have also been berated for instilling panic or behaving over-dramatically. Wearing a mask on a bus in Oxford, I was asked if I was “infected with the Ching Chang disease”. Some of my friends said they worry about wearing a mask or washing their hands too frequently, for fear of being labelled sick by those around them.

I lived through the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak as a child, and I vividly remember the days when we had to press lift buttons with a toothpick.

Hong Kong reliving Sars nightmare as coronavirus outbreak spreads

When the H1N1 flu pandemic rolled around in 2009, the government raised the alert level to “emergency” and ordered schools to close for two weeks. Some say the government overreacted, but in light of the devastating consequences of the government’s delayed response to the Sars outbreak, I saw it as a reminder that we must remain vigilant.

It is important that we do not judge or ostracise others for their public health practices, as long as they don’t disrupt other people’s lives.

Some cynics say racism is an imagined phenomenon, concocted to justify a victimhood complex. To this I say: talking about racism is easy, experiencing it in real life is not. It’s one thing to theorise about racism, it’s another to walk away from moments of humiliation and abuse thinking, “It does not matter”.

Victims of abuse should not bear the burden of convincing themselves that the abuse does not hurt or matter. It’s up to our political and economic leaders, and others in conspicuous positions of power, to safeguard their welfare.

Let’s get one thing straight – there’s a clear line between taking necessary precautions and engaging in abusive practices built on prejudices. It is reasonable to demand that those returning from mainland China, Hong Kong and other affected regions quarantine themselves.

It is nevertheless unacceptable to treat any and all individuals of Asian appearance as potential carriers of the virus – many Asians residing in the UK are British citizens, long-term students or have not travelled to Asia recently.

Brian YS Wong is an MPhil (political theory) candidate at Wolfson College, Oxford, and current Rhodes Scholar-elect for Hong Kong in 2020