The ugly side effects of COVID-19
In some cities, Chinese Canadians are being blamed for the virus
but, so far, Edmonton has avoided this particular sickness
By Jackson Spring
ALL BECAUSE Chinese people eat everything they see,” Ranran Xu recalls overhearing just outside MacEwan University last week.
The unknown speaker was assigning blame for the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak. Although Xu says instances like this in Edmonton seem to be relatively few and far between, racism and xenophobia against Chinese Canadians in general have been ramping up as fear of the virus spreads.
“The blind fear in response to coronavirus has created a vulnerability in the connection between Chinese communities and others,” she says.
The outbreak was identified in Wuhan in December 2019, and has since spread across the province of Hubei and to other parts of mainland China. Although 99 per cent of the 43,103 cases that have been confirmed as of Feb. 11 are confined to China, according to the World Health Organization, so far, there have been few cases recorded in other countries, including seven in Canada.
Although the WHO is not currently recommending travel bans, many countries, such as Australia and the U.S., have implemented their own. Canada is advising against all travel to Hubei, as well as non-essential travel to China as a whole.
The public response, meanwhile, has ranged from understandable concern, to theorizing on social media about conspiracies in which the Chinese government engineered the virus as a biological weapon or is merely encouraging its spread by paying citizens to spit on elevator buttons, to Chinese people being harassed or discriminated against under the assumption they are at greater risk of carrying the virus.
The increased racism has largely been online, or in the form of derogatory comments such as the one that Xu overheard. There have also been instances of people being harassed in public in Vancouver and Toronto, and one case in Edmonton in which a mother, who is originally from Taiwan, returned from a European vacation only to have her children pulled out of school after administrators assumed she had been in China for the Lunar New Year.
Michael Lee, the chairman of the Chinese Benevolent Association in Edmonton, says a big part of the problem is that the panic surrounding coronavirus is disproportionate to the actual danger.
“If you compare it to H1N1, for example, the severity is nowhere near on the same level,” he says. “If you catch it, you are not just doomed.”
While the WHO declared the virus a “public health emergency of international concern” on Jan. 30, director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that this is primarily because of “the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems.”
Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, told reporters Monday that the risk to Canadians “continues to be low,” and that all of the seven patients in the country are “recovering well or have recovered.”
“People hear ‘public emergency’ and they might freak out a bit,” Lee says, adding that another reason for the increase in anti-Chinese racism is cultural difference.
“Some associate flus and other viruses with this ethnic group,” he says. “Chinese people will often wear masks in public to protect themselves but, in Western societies, this can signal that the person is already infected, and are trying to prevent it from spreading to others.”
Lee and others in Edmonton’s Chinese community say that racism in Edmonton has not been as bad as has been reported in other cities.
“Thankfully, what we’ve seen so far has just been a few incidents and mostly just rumours beyond that,” says Patrick Ng, executive director of the China Town Multi-Cultural Centre, a subsidiary organization of the Chinese Benevolent Association. “We’re not worrying about it too much at the moment. Right now, we’re concentrating more on raising money and helping people in China who are dealing with the virus.”
Lee says the Chinese Benevolent Association has raised close to $70,000 for aid so far, and expects “a lot more to be coming in.”
Regarding the public response in Edmonton, he says “there has not been much panicking or fear-mongering.
“Edmontonians have been very smart when it comes to dealing with the situation.”