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Topics: Ethical Living | Opinion

Coronavirus fears stigmatize Chinese Canadians yet again

SARS left a scar on the Canadian psyche. Reacting to this new illness with racism is not the answer.

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“Quarantine all Chinese until the CHINESE virus is gone!!!” This comment was in response to an online petition urging the York Region District School Board, north of Toronto, to prevent students returning from China from attending school for 17 days. It also called for the release of their names to other parents. Fortunately, the school board showed leadership by empathizing with the concerns of many parents while warning that misguided assumptions and calls for a blanket quarantine can be seen as biased and racist.

The phrase “Chinese virus” is a modern version of “yellow peril,” a term used more than 100 years ago to refer to East Asian communities in Canada as a danger to the Western world. This was during the times of the Chinese head tax and other blatant racism against visible minorities. A century later, in 2020, this ingrained racist perception rears its ugly head with actions shunning and stigmatizing Chinese Canadians as “carriers of coronavirus.” The environment is so toxic for some Chinese Canadians that they do not feel comfortable going out of their homes, or decide to self-quarantine just to make others feel safe.

Some Chinese restaurants and shops have already seen drops in business, as they did in 2003 during SARS. I’ve heard about Chinese-Canadian workers who have been singled out by employers to stay away from work when they or their families have just returned from China. Chinese Canadians wearing masks have been taunted by strangers on the street for “spreading germs.” Racist and hateful messages targeting Chinese-Canadian communities have exploded online.

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All of us are, of course, concerned about our health. But I think this coronavirus seems to have generated more overreaction among the Canadian public (including Chinese Canadians) than SARS ever did. Canada was the hardest-hit country outside of Asia, and SARS left a scar on the Canadian psyche.

Ever since stories about an unknown virus in China surfaced in December 2019, Canadians, in particular Chinese Canadians, seemed to expect the worst. Widespread use of face masks by the general public in Asia, and drastic measures taken by the Chinese government such as locking down whole cities, are watched closely by many. Along with the limitless reach of social media, these have turned legitimate concerns into irrational fear and created a fertile ground for racism to prey on.

We must act on the basis of evidence, and without panic or racial profiling. The evidence is that the risk of exposure or serious harm in Canada is far below the risk for the flu, and the fatality rate for this coronavirus is estimated to be around three percent versus 10 percent for SARS. 

Stigmatization and the spread of panic will not help contain coronavirus. Misguided actions will overwhelm the public health system and compromise its effectiveness. Lessons from SARS taught us that dissemination of timely and transparent information by Canadian public health authorities on the infection itself and evidence-based practice guidelines in diverse languages and media are most effective in curbing public fear and preventing spread of infection.

Political leaders have to call out racism. Governments need to take swift actions against hate crimes and hate speech. Individually and collectively, we as Canadians must share the responsibility to support public health efforts to contain coronavirus now, while working to ensure the virus of racism does not damage our humanity more than the actual contagion does.

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Amy Go is the interim national president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice.

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  • says:

    It doesn't help when the media promotes sheer panic, and stresses where the virus "originated".

    Aside from that, we should hope that the virus is contained where it originated, but that isn't the case.
    But to "type cast" people who have been no where near Asia is stupid.

  • says:

    Immense thanks for this poignant article on the racist-related Canadian reaction to the current Coronavirus issue. I know from deep within me that as a naturalized Canadian, (became a citizen in 1975 in my 20’s) Canada is the best country in which to live, grow and blossom into fullness of being! And within such blessedness, yes, there are a portion of the population that would persistently attempt to soil our great country and people. However, their dehumanizing of the “other” (their target shifting like the wind), brings to light the conscious imperative of voicing a counter narrative that heals, re-unites and shines light of our true commitment to live and serve each other! Most Canadians and our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, LIVE within such consciousness and immediately respond with our love for humanity which includes “the least of our brothers and sisters” as all the “conscious” sacred traditions practice. We must counter racism by honouring the innate value of each person and protect their original innocence and integrity! In a strange ass-backwards way, bigotry has the power to marshall our finest characters and best, loving instincts! I hold our Chinese sisters and brothers in love and utter care as we live in Canada as one humanity. May Grace guide us all!
    Dr. Shanti Persaud
    (Victoria, BC)

    Replies

    • says:

      The virus was turned very quickly from a medical crisis to a narrative about racism in the press based on some irresponsible statements by medical and some community leaders. The comments were made around the end of January. It's now 9 Feb. And all the reporting indicates the crisis is far worse than the Chinese government were admitting. Nations across the globe are responding as they need. It got nothing to do with racism

  • says:

    It's hard to believe we go backward when we are afraid.
    It is in our ears daily, I know, but discrimination like the old days is unacceptable today. If people have been to China, they need to be careful, but how many children in these schools have parents, or family who were in China when this happened? I wonder how the Creator feels when we keep doing the same thing — fear, instead of love.
    Let's turn ourselves around to love instead of fear and live freely as God intended for us.... all. We can send powerful prayers of good will and healing to China. Healing energy heals.

  • says:

    The 2016 census says that Toronto's population is over 51 percent ethnic Canadians. Most of the allegations of racism originate in Toronto. Toronto what's up?

  • says:

    Nothing to do with discrimination': Chinese-Canadian MDs urge everyone returning from China to self-quarantine

    This headline from the 27 Feb edition of the NP speaks to the poor decisions of this magazines insistence of perpetuating the systemic racist angle where none exists.