opinion

"I am not a virus." How coronavirus became a petty excuse to be racist.

There’s a hashtag going viral in France at the moment. The phrase is simply, #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus.

It means: I am not a virus.

Stories have emerged from France of anti-Asian racism in response to the news of coronavirus.

The infection began in Wuhan, China, and the first case appears to have been detected more than one month ago. On January 23, the city of Wuhan, home to more than 11 million people, was forced into lockdown. At the time of publication, 132 people have died from the virus in China, with a further 5,900 people infected. In Australia, seven people are confirmed to have been infected, one in Queensland, two in Victoria, and four in New South Wales.

The infection has now spread to at least 21 countries, including France.

NSW Health provides comment on coronavirus. Post continues below. 

Video by NSW HEALTH

A French woman named Cathy Tran told the BBC that while walking to work this week she overheard two men say to each other, “Watch out, a Chinese girl is coming our way.”

On her way home, someone yelled that she ought to put on a mask.

Tran’s experience made me think of three stories I’ve heard this week.

The first is from a teacher based in Sydney’s west, who told me on Wednesday evening that, “the treatment of Chinese people at the moment is worse than the treatment of Muslims after September 11.”

All day, in the lead up to the beginning of term, the school received phone calls from frantic parents.

“I don’t mean to be racist,” one parent began, “but what is the school doing about all the Asian kids?”

Hundreds of schools all over Sydney sent letters to parents before the commencement of term one. The letter issued by Sydney Catholic Schools read: “If you have visited China anytime in December to now, please refrain from sending your children to school until they have been checked and cleared by a doctor. During this time, you should be alert for symptoms related to a fever or other respiratory symptoms.

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“A doctor’s certificate will be required prior to your children returning to school. Please contact the principal directly if this is the case.”

This message actually goes against federal and NSW Health advice, which encourages schools to allow any child who does not show coronavirus symptoms to return to the classroom.

But still, the concern from parents flooded in. What the “I-don’t-mean-to-be-racist” phone call represented was the way in which a virus has now been inextricably tied to an ethnic identity, perpetuating old and harmful stereotypes of what Natalia Mollina refers to as “the Chinese as carriers of diseases and pollutants”.

The second story is regarding a Sydney primary school.

I spoke to a woman who told me that her daughter returned home from school this week convinced that “Chinese people” are not allowed to come to school because they’re diseased. Another girl in her class had told her so.

The third story took place in a hospital on Thursday morning, where a friend found herself after an unfortunate accident.

She got speaking to a doctor, and the subject of coronavirus came up.

Earlier this week, the doctor told her, a patient expressed concern that she had, I quote, “made eye contact with an Asian person”. Might she have coronavirus, she wondered?

The doctor, Asian herself, asked: “So what about me?”

These three stories tell us something about the racial hysteria born and bred from coronavirus.

Sam Phan, a masters student at the University of Manchester, posted to Twitter: “This week, my ethnicity has made me feel like I was part of a threatening and diseased mass.”

And this perception is hardly imagined.

News sites all over the country have run legitimate stories about coronavirus alongside unrelated footage of a Chinese vlogger named Wang Mengyun eating bat soup.

Three years ago.

In Micronesia. Not China.

The implication is that however coronavirus originated – first believed to have been contracted in a seafood market, although that theory is becoming increasingly unlikely – is somehow the fault of the people who fell ill.

Could an assumption – based on no evidence whatsoever – be any more racist?

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Speaking to Mamamia, writer Shelley Cheng, a migrant-settler of Chinese ethnicity, said: “I feel both hyper-vigilant and exhausted, seeing social media comments from East Asians saying they’ve been shouted at on public transport, refused medical treatment by doctors, and being refused service at restaurants.

“Since coronavirus has been racialised as a Chinese disease, many East Asians have been treated like carriers of the virus. Many of us are just waiting to be racially targeted, just like we were during the SARS outbreak. I think it’s going to be much worse this time because of social media and disinformation.”

How worried should you actually be about coronavirus? Post continues below. 

“Seeing posts about the virus being found in popular Asian snacks, the warnings about avoiding certain suburbs with a high Chinese population, and all the petitions going around to bar Chinese people from school certainly add to my anxiety.

“The comments are even worse, with people saying we deserve the deaths, the hate and the racism. I’ve seen many people indiscriminately calling for deportation and quarantine.

“Personally, I’ve been avoiding public transport and going to public areas in fear of being racially abused. But I know it will still happen.”

A number of Australians of Asian heritage have shared their experiences on Twitter, with a woman named Yen-Rong Wong posting: “This is the first time I’ve ever felt physically unsafe in Australia because of my race. I thought we were over this shit but obviously not.”

A report by The Daily Telegraph emerged on Thursday of a Chinese man suffering a heart attack in Sydney’s Chinatown on Tuesday night, and bystanders refusing to perform CPR for fear of contracting coronavirus.

It has been speculated that the widely circulated videos of people in China collapsing from coronavirus might have added to people’s concern. Never mind that those videos are unconfirmed, and may, in fact, be entirely unrelated to the virus.

While coronavirus is a very real illness that requires global vigilance, it is not the fault, nor the design, of the people who have fallen ill with it.

We are smarter than stigmatising an entire ethnic community based on a virus that has infected a select few.

The very worst thing we could do, is use the news of coronavirus as a petty excuse to be racist.

Feature image: Getty. 

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