Coronavirus: how language of disease produces anti-Asian racism, hate and violence
- North America has a long history of inflammatory language connecting disease with race, with Chinese consistently accused of being carriers
- Underlying prejudice against Asian communities has been a staple feature of its society since the first Chinese workers arrived in the mid-19th century
Self-isolation. Quarantine. Lockdown. The outbreak of Covid-19 and its subsequent dissemination across the globe has left a shock wave of disbelief and confusion in many countries.
History tells us this is not the first time that fear of disease has led to outbreaks of anti-Asian racism. Underlying prejudice against Asian communities has been a staple feature of North American society since the first Chinese workers arrived in the mid-19th century.
Looking back at these outbreaks of discrimination is a sobering lesson of the consequences of racial labels for disease.
But more than 100 years ago, white people in North America had labelled Chinese people as “dangerous to the white,” living in “most unhealthy conditions” with a “standard of morality immeasurably below ours.”
Indispensable Chinese labour
When British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871, the Canadian government initiated a system to recruit and attract Chinese labour to supplement the growing requirements of building the Canadian Pacific Railway. Thousands of Chinese workers were hired and arrived by boat.
Chinese communities thrived in the growing cities of the West Coast, setting up businesses and finding employment in laundries, grocers and labour camps, as well as in domestic service, especially as cooks.
The rise of anti-Asian racism
Around this time, white communities were growing disgruntled at the presence of Asian settlers in the cities. In 1880, the Anti-Chinese Association of Victoria submitted a petition to Ottawa against “the terrible evil of Mongolian usurpation” in Canada. The 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the US soon led Canadian officials to consider similar measures.
In 1884, the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration was established, to determine the impact of Chinese presence in Canada. The commission held hearings in British Columbia, San Francisco and Portland, to gather evidence from witnesses – more than fifty people from among from the police, government, physicians and the public. Only two of the witnesses were Chinese.
The witness accounts reveal how underlying race prejudice has long formed the basis of North American attitudes towards China.
Blame for disease
The Royal Commission report concluded: “The “Chinese quarters are the filthiest and most disgusting places in Victoria, overcrowded hotbeds of disease and vice, disseminating fever and polluting the air all around.”
Yet the commissioners were aware that such conditions were derived from poverty, and that the overcrowded slums could occur just as easily among “any other race” that was similarly impoverished.
Despite this, both the public and many politicians continued to connect disease with race.
The Chinese were consistently accused of being carriers of infection. In the Royal Commission report, it was a common belief that syphilis, leprosy and especially smallpox were “communicated to the Indians and the white population” from Chinese communities. This despite the fact that at the time China legally required inoculation for all its citizens, and the physicians interviewed by the commission declared having “never seen a case of leprosy among them.”
By 1885, Canada had passed the Chinese Immigration Act which placed a “head tax” on all Chinese immigrants.
Quarantine officers at the ports were ordered to inspect all on board of Chinese origin, stripping down and examining any Chinese person suspected to be sick. Over the next 20 years, recurring smallpox epidemics were erroneously blamed on Chinese communities.
Such sentiments were accompanied by violence. In 1886, anti-Asian riots broke out in Vancouver, resulting in violent attacks on Asian workers. Similar riots occurred again in 1907, after the formation of a Canadian branch of the American Asiatic Exclusion League in Vancouver. The group organised public, inflammatory speeches against the “filth” of British Columbia’s Asian residents. On September 7, 1907, a mob violently attacked Asian shops and homes in Vancouver’s Chinese and Japanese quarters.
These historical incidents of discrimination clearly demonstrate how the language of disease is often encoded with underlying racial prejudice.
“Viruses know no borders and they don’t care about your ethnicity or the colour of your skin or how much money you have in the bank,” said Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organisation’s health emergencies programme.
Yet language can easily spark discrimination in times of fear, with dire consequences.