“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.
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