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"It almost made me cry." 5 Asian-Australians on what people have said to them because of COVID-19.

It’s been 65 days since COVID-19, or Novel coronavirus, was discovered in the Wuhan province in China.

In Australia, there have been a reported 137 cases, with three deaths linked to the virus. Globally, that number sits at 4,300. It’s understandably scary.

But before coronavirus evolved into a global health threat, it became a social one. Around the world, Chinese people and those who appear to be Chinese or Asian in appearance have been the victim of hate crimes, racism and discrimination. From casually racist remarks, unnerving stares on public transport, to racially-charged slurs and physical attacks, the stories are common and far-reaching.

Just follow the viral Twitter hashtags #IamNotaVirus, #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus and #NoSoyUnVirus.

The World Health Organisation on how to protect yourself from COVID-19 (coronavirus). Post continues below.

Video by WHO

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For the majority of cases, those infected with COVID-19 will suffer what has been likened to a ‘mild cold’. With rest and time, most will recover and go back to their everyday lives. The psychological and emotional effects of racism and discrimination will last much longer.

Speaking to Mamamia, a Melbourne woman described the moment she walked into a Tasmanian pub where she was immediately verbally attacked by a stranger. She was with friends and minding her own business.

“I got some weird looks from the balcony and as soon as I walked into the pub, an old white male decided to look directly at me and mutter ‘coronavirus’ in my face,” she said.

“I was even looking downwards to not cause attention because I could feel people staring. It almost made me cry. I haven’t really had any racist encounters in a few years and it just blew my mind.”

We also spoke to four other Asian-Australians who have been affected by COVID-19 hysteria. From a Sydney business owner who’s fearing for her livelihood, to a 14-year-old high school student who was teased and bullied by his fellow students.

Here are their stories:

Dr Rhea Liang, a doctor from the Gold Coast.

This was at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, at this point there were only one or two cases of the virus in Australia.

It was at a teaching clinic and there were a whole group of us. A patient came in and was introduced to the team. They shook a few hands, but when they reached me they withdrew their hand, made a joke about the fact that I was Chinese, and said they probably shouldn’t shake my hand. I just carried on with the consultation. It’s one of those things you just bury in the back of your mind and go, ‘that wasn’t quite right’.

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My team were very supportive. As soon as the patient left and the door closed, they turned to me and went ‘oh my God, can you believe they said that?’ It was something that didn’t appear to be right to everyone.

I work in breast cancer care so the people who come to me, they’re stressed themselves and they need our help. Plus, we’re the only publicly funded breast cancer clinic on the Gold Coast. It’s not the only act of discrimination I’ve had, but it’s one of those situations where you’re like we’ll probably just overlook that and carry on providing good care.

It did just strike me that it’s additional emotional work that other people don’t have to do. If you’re a white person, you don’t have to deal with this sort of thing.

When my Twitter post originally went viral, there was a lot of awareness and I had a lot of patients come up to say, ‘we saw it and we just wanted to say we don’t stand for any of it,’ which was really gratifying. I had one patient come in when they were into the pre-op and they bought a Corona-branded drinking bottle. It was so cute. She came in and said that ‘I just wanted you to know that I stand with you and I want you to take a picture and post it’. She’s the one there for a cancer operation. It’s a terrible day for her and she’s thinking of me.

Humans are hard-wired to discriminate against people who aren’t like themselves. It’s not people’s fault. In the caveman days it gave you an evolutionary advantage. But it’s 2020 and the whole world is a melting pot and we’re an educated, first-world nation. We should be able to get beyond this very instinctual response.

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I think the fact that we will unite against a viral threat will hopefully get rid of the racism, because it’s becoming clear we all have to stick together. But in the longer-term, it’s wise to open our eyes to it. It didn’t take very much, it only took two cases in Australia for that rather ugly thing called racism to be exposed.

Eva, business owner at Won Ton Noodle House in Sydney’s Dixon House Food Court.

Things were okay in January, but from February to now the situation has gotten significantly worse. It’s been really bad. The food court is even emptier during dinner.

The decline in business has been really severe and we’ve felt the impact.

It’s getting difficult to pay the rent because we’re not making money. There used to be 18 shops open and now there’s only four. There’s no business to be made so some eateries are trying to save money by not being open. That way you’re not losing money on ingredients and staff.

We’re all afraid but there’s nothing we can do about it. If we close down our stall, then how will we pay the rent? Who’s going to help us? If they didn’t need us to pay rent, then we wouldn’t stay open. We’d rather be at home, but this is our livelihood and the most important thing is that we keep up our rent so we can keep our shop.

Coronavirus racism Australia
At one point this food court would be completely full. Eva says this is their 'new busy'. Image: Supplied / Jess Wang.

People who are working part-time at Chinese restaurants have been affected too. If they were working five days before, they're now working two days, because there's not even enough business. People would rather work than rely on help from the government handouts, but they don't have a choice. It's not just rent, it's also the GST, electricity and gas fees. Plus, we need to live. At least we're covered for food. We can just make something simple here.

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It's funny because I think the situation is a lot better in China. I don't know how Australia is going to fix this problem. I think China is tackling the solution better. Here, you can't even buy a face mask. Yesterday I was talking to a friend in China and she asked if I wanted her to mail some masks to me.

We're not old enough to retire but because we're both older, nobody else will hire us. We just hope we can wait it out and things will return to normal. If the government could help us that would make things better. After all it would be a shame if Dixon Street Food Court closes, it would be sad for everyone here.

Our only option is to wait it out and see if the situation gets better. If it doesn't then we'll have no choice. We'll have to close the store which we opened in 1983. That's over 37 years. We're just trying to stay in operation.

Liz*, a NSW high school teacher. 

There's a student in Year 8 from my high school who's of Chinese descent.

He went to China and was there for about three weeks of the school term. When he came back, he quarantined himself for the appropriate amount of time but when he returned to school there were a lot of students in year groups across the school who were calling him 'Corona'.

People were telling other kids to avoid him because he might have the coronavirus. There was even a staff member who asked if he had medical clearance to be at school. It was only one staff member and that person was quickly reprimanded by the deputy principal.

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Since they've all been reprimanded, it seems to have stopped for the most part. It's not targeted anymore but there's still a lot of fear at my school.

Listen: Sick, Sicker and Sickest: What It Actually Feels Like To Have COVID-19. Post continues below.

Marisse, a high school student. 

I was on a train next to this group of three or four Filipino people in their late thirties to early forties and they were speaking amongst themselves in Tagalog.

As the train was nearing my stop, they turned their attention to me, noted my school uniform and the fact that I was carrying a violin case on my back. It was relatively harmless stuff, so I thought about joining in their conversation in Tagalog and giving them a little bit of a shock.

As the train pulled into the station, however, they said something along the lines of, “With what’s happening with the virus, people like her should just stay home. Surely whatever’s at school can’t be that important".

At that point, the train had completely stopped and being so close to the door, I had to get off right away. They stayed on the train, so I was separated from them before I could even really comprehend what just happened.

After fully understanding the situation, I didn’t really think much of it. They talked about me in a language that I didn’t understand and I know their intention wasn’t to hurt me. That's why I wasn’t really that angry or offended by it. It came from a place of fear more than hate. At the same time, it definitely wasn’t right and brings to light how internalised racism really is in our culture. Having this happen to me really just reaffirmed that this is unfortunately how things happen and how, now more than ever, it needs to change.

I think it comes from where all racism comes from: difference. We can talk about how we shouldn’t 'see colour' all we want, but the fact is that there are physical and cultural differences between different groups of people.

For people who think expressing or even having racist ideologies is okay because of coronavirus, I would say that while fear is dangerous and powerful, you can’t let it be what motivates you. Many of these people (not all, but many) aren’t terrible people. However, hating another human being is a learned behaviour and it starts with suspicion and fear. So, if you hold these ideologies, I think you should think really hard about where it comes from.

Featured image: Getty.


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