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Coronavirus-related xenophobia is spreading – and I’m feeling the effects in the UK

A number of countries have seen overt instances of racist stereotypes – such instances are something we all need to avoid

Sophie Lau
Sunday 02 February 2020 15:27
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Coronavirus: WHO declares international health emergency over 'unprecedented outbreak'

I’ve bought surgical masks. I’ll admit it. I’ve been wearing one a day for a while. Before there were reports of coronavirus cases in the UK, I was already cautious.

Truth is, in the west, we have had little to worry about in terms of recent health crises, but the widespread panic among the Chinese diaspora right now is caused by a dark shadow in Chinese collective memory: that of the 2003 Sars outbreak.

There is plenty of information around about why Sars happened; how it spread so rapidly and why it was as lethal as it was. Certainly, the Chinese government covering up the outbreak for four months and healthcare workers not being properly informed of the dangers played a part.

Seventeen years on, it appears that lessons have not been taken on board as they should have. Early reports of the coronavirus in Wuhan first appeared in December 2019 and yet, on 18 January 2020, Wuhan officials still held a potluck banquet involving 40,000 families in a world record attempt.

During this time, anyone posting about the virus on social media was censored and a number of people have been pulled in for police questioning for spreading false “rumours”. Beijing may have reacted faster to this outbreak, but it still has to do better.

For Chinese people, Sars was more than an epidemic that spun out of control. It was the result of the government letting us down. If there had been government transparency, if quarantine and isolation had happened initially, so much tragedy could likely have been avoided.

What we’ve learnt is that blind faith in institutions doesn’t work. We’ve learnt that powerful authorities often don’t have our best interests at heart.

We’ve learnt that the only way to overcome health crises such as these is by relying on ourselves and each other, as citizens. We’ve learnt that if we depend on government intervention, it will often be too late. This is very much an attitude that has also pervaded through the Chinese diaspora.

Inherently, not much has changed since 2003, at least when it comes to the government, but with the addition of virtual private networks (VPNs) via the Internet, the Chinese diaspora can now stay more informed.

We’re anxiously calling family asking them about the situation back home and frantically voice messaging Chinese friends spread across the world, asking if they’ve got enough disinfectant. This is as well as reading up on articles written by geneticists, virologists and journalists, all discussing the potential risks of the novel coronavirus and the potentially concerning amount of information we don’t yet know.

Meanwhile, western media is fixated on Chinese people buying surgical masks, and pieces such as “Mask Hoarders May Raise Risk of a Coronavirus Outbreak in the US” are unfair. Most of us aren’t stockpiling for ourselves. We’re not hoarding out of selfishness. We’re hoarding so that we have enough to send out to our family and friends in Hong Kong, or China, where there’s a shortage.

There’s a misconception that Chinese people are buying surgical masks out of herd mentality. That we’re all uninformed hypochondriacs. That’s inherently false. There are even humorous cartoons on the use of masks and hand sanitiser floating around Facebook.

The truth is, we know the masks are a last ditch attempt, but in the face of a veritable health crisis, they’re our only hope. Chinese people, diaspora included, are scared. We’re just trying to protect ourselves since the government has failed to do so once again.

Residents chastised by talking drones for not wearing face masks amid coronavirus outbreak.mp4

My white friends at university are saying, somewhat ignorantly: “Well, I was gonna wait until it got to Wuhan levels here before worrying to be honest”; “You know masks don’t actually help, right?”; “It’s not like your family in Hong Kong are going to die”; “Are you wearing a mask because of the ‘virus’?”; “My immune system’s strong enough to deal with anything.” Or, my favourite, a chilling: “Well, I guess I’m just privileged enough to not have to think about it.” But people in Wuhan, and throughout China, are dying and reports from within China itself are horrifying.

This xenophobia is spreading and has led to more overt instances elsewhere. In New Zealand – where there are no confirmed coronavirus cases – a Singaporean woman says she was confronted and faced harassment in a shopping centre. A French newspaper also had to apologise for a front page that used the words “yellow alert” and an editorial that said “The yellow danger?” – they said they had no intention of perpetuating “racist stereotypes of Asians”.

Maybe the novel coronavirus won’t spread greatly or rapidly outside of China, maybe I don’t need to be wearing a mask at university – that’s something that will make itself evident in the coming weeks.

But for now, what I do know for certain is that white people are apathetic unless it concerns white bodies. Despite more than 14,000 people now confirmed infected and more than 300 deaths, my white friends won’t see it as a problem unless a white person in the UK dies.

Dismissing the situation, despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently declaring it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), shows that as much as this is about a terrifying epidemic within China, it also involves a pressing endemic illness within the west, that of apathy and individualism. It shows how far we have to go to end the idea of what is perceived as the “other”.

Working together is the fastest way to end this crisis – the Chinese government must be better and the rest of the world must make sure they do not fall into the trap of xenophobia.

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