As fears over the deadly coronavirus from China grow, so are racist and xenophobic incidents against Asian communities in the US, Canada, and Europe.
People of Asian descent have described to Business Insider and other outlets being discriminated at work, Costco, and a university campus.
In larger-scale incidents, customers from mainland China were banned from businesses in Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam, and more than 126,000 people in Singapore called for Chinese nationals to be banned from the country.
“We tend to exist in social silos where we’re surrounded by people who look like us, think like us, and act like us, and we are innately suspicious of folk that we don’t have contact with and we don’t understand,” Robert Fullilove, a professor of sociomedical sciences told Business Insider.
He also said it’s “almost impossible to contain stories” of misinformation and xenophobia when news moves so quickly in the media.
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The novel coronavirus from Wuhan, China, has killed more than 304 people in less than two months after its first case.
Authorities in China have quarantined more than ten cities, and the US, UK, and several other countries are quarantining all travelers who have recently visited China.
Yet some of the virus’ unexpected victims are those who have never even been anywhere near Wuhan.
Members of the Asian diaspora living in the US, Canada, Britain, and Italy have in recent days described, to Business Insider and other outlets, multiple incidents of being racially discriminated and isolated at school, work, and other public places.
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Here’s a roundup of apparently racist and xenophobic incidents, inflicted on Asian residents in foreign countries, in the past two weeks alone:
An eight-year-old boy — whose mother is Korean-American, and father is a mix of ethnic backgrounds including Filipino, Mexican, Chinese, Native American, and white — wearing a face mask was told by a Costco sample-stand worker to “get away because he may be ‘from China.'” Business Insider’s Sara Al-Arshani has the full story.
Students of east Asian descent at Arizona State University told Business Insider’s Bryan Pietsch their peers have started moving away from them and staring at them “a second longer” whenever they cough or sneeze.
Peter Akman, a reporter at Canada’s CTV broadcaster, tweeted an image of his Asian barber and said: “Hopefully ALL I got today was a haircut.” He has since deleted the post, apologized, and been fired.
The director of Rome’s prestigious Santa Cecilia music conservatory, Roberto Giuliani, suspended the lessons of all “oriental students (Chinese, Korean, Japanese etc.)” due to the epidemic, La Repubblica reported. Most of these students are second-generation Italian immigrants who have no relationship to the countries of origin, the newspaper said.
Le Courrier Picard, a daily regional newspaper in northern France, described the coronavirus as a “yellow alert” in a front-page headline last Sunday. It has since apologized, and French Asians have protested on social media under the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (“I am not a virus”).
Sam Phan, a British-Chinese Masters student at the University of Manchester, described in The Guardian overhearing people fearing going to London’s Chinatown, and seeing people physically move away from them in public areas.
A woman of Cambodian origin told Le Monde that her manager at a Paris bag store told her, “laughing: ‘I hope that your family hasn’t brought the virus back.'”
Frank Ye, a Chinese-Canadian student at the University of Toronto, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation his Asian Canadian friends had been told to move away or cover their mouths. “[It’s] this idea of ‘yellow peril,’ of this Chinese horde coming to destroy Western civilization,” he said.
Instagram users commented on a photo of a Chinese restaurant in Toronto, saying things like “No eating bats please!! That’s how coronavirus started in China!!” and “I ain’t tryna catch no virus.”
In more large-scale incidents, businesses in Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam have posted signs banning customers from mainland China; the hashtag #ChineseDon’tComeToJapan trended in Japan; and more than 126,000 people have signed a Singaporean petition calling for Chinese nationals to be banned from their country.
Some of the conspiracy theories and misinformation circulating about the coronavirus also have tinges of racism and xenophobia.
A video appearing to show a young Chinese woman eating a raw bat with chopsticks has gone viral in recent weeks, with thousands of social media users — and some media outlets — claiming that the footage was taken in Wuhan, and suggesting that this is part of the normal Chinese diet.
(The video was actually taken in Palau, the Pacific Island country, in 2016 and was part of an online travel show about eating unusual local delicacies. Earlier this week she apologized for eating the food, saying she had “no idea during filming that there was such a virus.”)
The bat has since spurred multiple memes mocking what users think are Chinese eating habits, like “bats and bamboo and rats and s—,” and linking them to the disease.
Other misinformation surrounding the virus include theories that it can be cured with toxic bleach or oregano oil, or that it stems from a leak from China’s bioweapons program or 5G network.
The Wuhan coronavirus is spread from human to human, and has now spread to more than 20 countries. It is believed to have jumped from bats to snakes to humans.
The virus doesn’t seem to be as deadly as the SARS coronavirus — which, at current comparison levels, had a higher mortality rate — with experts telling Business Insider’s Holly Secon that global panic over the Wuhan virus is unproductive and unwarranted.
Blaming ‘the other’
Many people of Asian descent faced racist and xenophobic comments during the SARS epidemic too. SARS, like the Wuhan coronavirus, also originated from China.
Robert Fullilove, a professor of sociomedical sciences at the Columbia University Medical Center, told Business Insider the xenophobic fear surrounding coronarvirus is similar to the reaction toward HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, when there were no clear answers as to what caused the virus.
He said at the time, people blamed anyone but themselves — or “the other” — for AIDS, which was becoming rapidly deadly in communities of Haitians, intravenous drug users, and gay men.
This sort of reaction isn’t new, either. It dates as far back as Bubonic Plague in the 1300s, when there were false notions that Jewish people were poisoning peoples’ water to spread the infection, Fullilove said. The accusations led to the destruction of Jewish communities, and in parts of France and Switzerland, some Jews were banned from consuming food and drinks meant for Christians, while others were burned alive.
“We tend to exist in social silos where we’re surrounded by people who look like us, think like us, and act like us, and we are innately suspicious of folk that we don’t have contact with and we don’t understand,” he said of why xenophobic views spread in times of panic, adding that people use others as scapegoats.
Fullilove said the best way to stop misinformation, especially when it comes to blaming a specific person or race, can be to make sure people have a clear idea of what’s happening with the virus.
Because of how quickly news spreads today on the internet, it becomes “almost impossible to contain stories” of misinformation and xenophobia, Fullilove said.
“Xenophobia works at its worst if people decide that the only thing they have to do is stay away from folk who are from China,” he said.
“There will come a point when it’s much more diverse in terms of who’s impacted, and if we’re unable to get people a clear message about what they have to do to protect themselves, not only will we not do the things that will help us stay reasonably safe, we’ll also create a lot of social damage that it will be very difficult to clean up.”
John C. Yang, president of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice civil-rights group, told NBC News that when people play off stereotypes to come to conclusions about the virus, they are “going for a simplistic and completely misinformed and frankly, ignorant answer.”
With the coronavirus, people have focused on stereotypes about Chinese people when coming to conclusions about the virus, he said.
“Unfortunately, there are definitely those people that still believe that somehow, Chinese culture generally, it’s backwards and foods are considered ‘exotic,'” Yang told NBC News. “That certainly leads to misperception and, even worse, misinformation or disinformation about what actually happens and what is the source of the coronavirus.”
The stigma appears to have become so prevalent that the medical officer of Toronto Public Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, had to warn in a Wednesday statement: “Inaccurate information continues to spread and this is creating unnecessary stigma against members of our community … Discrimination is not acceptable.”
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