Keep your sinophobia in quarantine this flu season

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On the blatant racism stemming from the coronavirus outbreak

While the quarantine in Wuhan, China continues, and thousands are infected in the city’s area by the novel coronavirus (NCOV), buzz continues to circulate around the world about the urgency of the virus. The Carillon’s news section includes an account of the situation on the ground in China, but the NCOV has implications abroad as well, implications that aren’t about public health risk.

Rather, the real (and, to an extent, justified) fear of contracting a serious illness as the NCOV sprads has spiralled for many into a very unreasonable paranoia despite there being little to no risk. Even worse, these exaggerated worries express themselves through acts of anti-Chinese racism (or sinophobia) that harm, isolate, and have material costs for Asian Canadians.

Edward Hon-Sing Wong, co-chair of the Chinese Canadian National Council’s (CCNC) Toronto chapter, has written for Briarpatch and Al Jazeera about the sinophobia surrounding the NCOV outbreak, which he says has a long history in North America. The CCNC is dedicated to monitoring anti-Chinese racism in Canada, and its very existence shows that such racism has been a long institution here. As Hon-Sing Wong explains, Chinese Canadians have long been portrayed by racists as “unhygenic” or “diseased,” a perception that dates back to the poor conditions in 19th century Chinatowns.

Of course, these conditions themselves were caused by racism in the first place – a lack of care for migrants meant that sewer and waste systems were not adequately implemented. This sinophobic perception of “dirtiness” prevented Chinese Canadians, says Hon-Sing Wong, from getting jobs as well, and as a result disenfranchisement continued. Hong-Sing Wong says in his article for Al Jazeera, “Sinophobia Won’t Save You From the Coronavirus,” that Chinatown conditions are much improved in present day, but panics about diseases from China “add fuel to the fire.”

The NCOV scare is unfolding in a similar manner to the SARS outbreak in 2003, and Chinatowns are losing a great deal of business while Chinese and other Asian Canadians are facing unfounded accusations of illness or being avoided in public. This is not only happening in big cities like Toronto but in Regina, too, and at the U of R. The University of Regina cancelled all travel to China in January, taking a “proactive” approach to the NCOV. While precautions are understandable, the virus can only be contracted through close person-to-person contact and the Chinese government is taking its own serious precautions to avoid further infection. This idea that China is somehow a time bomb of fatal disease because of the NCOV, when several times more people die of the regular flu in the US in a year than have died of NCOV in China, is creating hysteria and stoking racist ideas.

I have already heard several of my Chinese, Korean and Japanese friends speak out about microaggressions they experienced in Regina because of their perceived risk for NCOV. Although I was not able to get an interview from a student about these experiences directly, U of R students offered me some of their testimonies through social media.

One student reported to the Carillon that a classmate of theirs walked into class wearing a mask, asked an Asian student if they had been to China, and then told them to sit two seats away from them. Another says that they know someone who is convinced the NCOV is a superweapon created by the Chinese. The U of R officially runs a “you belong here; racism doesn’t” campaign on campus – it should be aware of the kinds of grossly misinformed attitudes that are leading to this racist behaviour among the student body.

Let us get the facts straight about NCOV: it is only spread through close contact with an infected person. It is not necessarily, or even likely to be, a fatal illness, unless the person infected has poor respiratory health or is immunocompromised. We still need to protect the health of these people – of everyone – but the way to do this is not to increase our sinophobia or distrust of Asian Canadians, and it is ridiculous that this needs to be said. During any flu season, we need to encourage basic hygiene like hand washing and safe food preparation, we need to be getting our shots, and we need to take a damn sick day or wear a face mask when we’re ill so that we don’t expose others to our germs. Considering that face masks are widely accepted as courtesy and hygiene standard in East Asian countries, it is particularly ironic that in the West we act as if China is unhygenic while we walk around sneezing on our coworkers.

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