Montreal, Canada – Frank Ye still remembers being rejected on the playground when he was six years old.
The now 23-year-old had moved to Canada a year earlier from China, and he was starting school in the Toronto area at the height of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003. His classmates did not want to play with him.
“The memories I have of that time was really on an individual level about what I faced being a Chinese child at school, and that was children telling me to go away. ‘You can’t play with us because all Chinese people have SARS,'” he told Al Jazeera.
Now, with the novel coronavirus spreading around the world from the outbreak’s epicentre in China, Ye and other Chinese Canadians say they fear the xenophobia and racism that they experienced at the height of the SARS outbreak is increasing again.
Ye, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, said blaming Chinese Canadians for a virus that is not their fault is dehumanising and belittling and can be especially damaging for children.
“We risk really ostracising the community, we risk hurting businesses, we risk hurting people because we’re letting paranoia rather than facts drive how we react to this,” he said.
Social media driving xenophobia
The coronavirus, which originated in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, has killed at least 259 people inside the country to date.
It has also spread to several countries worldwide, prompting the World Health Organization on Thursday to declare the outbreak a global emergency.
Members of the Chinese-Canadian community say fears about the spread of the disease – around which misinformation is rife – have also led to what they feel is an uptick in xenophobia in Canada, where three confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed so far.
A similar situation developed during the SARS outbreak in 2003. There were more than 8,000 reported SARS cases at that time, and the epidemic spread to 26 countries, including Canada, where 44 people died from the disease.
During the SARS outbreak, Amy Go worked at a long-term geriatric care facility in Toronto that primarily served Chinese Canadians, and she said people regularly accused them of harbouring the disease there.
Go, now the interim executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, a human rights group, said social media has become the place where “vile, racist comments” are festering around the current coronavirus outbreak.
cases in Canada. Three. Common flu kills 3,500 Canadians every year. Let’s put this in perspective.”]
She said she has seen comments online such as, “Quarantine all Chinese until Chinese virus is gone” and “Stop immigration from China because they carry this disease”. The brazen racism people displayed online is something she said she did not see during the SARS outbreak.
“There are still only ultimately three [coronavirus] cases in Canada. Three. Common flu kills 3,500 Canadians every year. Let’s put this in perspective,” she told Al Jazeera.
Go likened those attitudes to the “Yellow Peril”, a period of fearmongering around Chinese immigration to Canada at the turn of the 20th century.
“This kind of violation of human rights, this further stigmatisation, this entrenchment of ‘Yellow Peril’ perception … ultimately, collectively we bear the consequences,” she said. “When coronavirus is controlled, guess what’s left still? [The idea that] Chinese are the carriers of diseases.”
Stigmatising the ‘other’
Harris Ali, a sociology professor at Toronto’s York University who has researched the 2003 SARS outbreak response, said many of the racist incidents at that time were individualised. They ranged from people harassing other commuters on the bus or subway, crossing the street when someone of a particular ethnic group was walking by, or leaving hateful messages at places serving the Chinese community.
In the case of the coronavirus, Ali also said social media has emerged as the main place where people are spreading xenophobia.
He pointed to a recent petition set up by parents at a Toronto-area school board. Signed by nearly 10,000 people, the petition calls on the York District School Board (YDSB) to order its schools to track and name any students who recently travelled to China and ask those students “to stay at home and keep isolated”.
“York region has a large Chinese-Canadian population. There were a lot of people travelling to China before or during the Chinese New Year. We cannot be overly cautious in protecting our children,” the petition read.
Ali said this “Othering” is harmful because it creates a situation in which people can easily find and target scapegoats. “Under extreme situations, people let their guard down and [they] just lash out at the most visible, simple and apparent thing,” he told Al Jazeera.
The YDSB responded to the petition on January 27, saying it was important that the coronavirus “not be seen as a Chinese virus” or that assumptions be made about the risks of others.
“Situations such as these can regrettably give rise to discrimination based on perceptions, stereotypes and hate,” the school board said in an open letter. “It’s important that we not make assumptions about students or staff based on their race or travel history.”
According to Ali, xenophobia can also have a harmful effect on the ability to fight the spread of a disease.
If someone fears being shunned for being associated with a virus, he or she may not come forward to see a doctor, and then the virus will be more difficult to contain and treat. “Stigmatisation is important. It does play into the physical aspects of the disease spread; they’re not separable,” Ali said.
Justin Kong, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto chapter, a local advocacy group not directly affiliated with Amy Go’s organisation, said a general climate of fear has developed around the virus among all residents of the city.
Within the Chinese-Canadian community, he said that fear is two-fold: People are afraid of the disease itself, as well as any possible social ramifications they could face as a group. “We saw that [with] SARS: both the economic and the social damage done by it … the stigmatisation of Chinese areas, of Chinese-Canadian people,” Kong told Al Jazeera.
He said he has already seen people from outside of the Chinese-Canadian community “avoiding a lot of places that are associated with Chinese-ness or Chinese Canadians”.
When we peddle racist ideas, when we peddle xenophobia, that isn't going to protect you from the virus ... Proper public health procedures and precautions will protect you from the virus. Racism won't.
Education and open communication with all community members are critical to combat disinformation around the coronavirus this time around, he said, and health experts and community groups are more readily prepared to combat racism and discrimination than they were during the SARS outbreak.
“We shouldn’t have a blanket fear of anyone that looks Chinese or is Chinese,” Kong said. “Obviously, public health is doing the best that they can to make sure everyone is safe, and we trust that they will do that.”
That was echoed by Ye, the University of Toronto student, who also urged people to be careful about what they share online to avoid spreading misinformation.
“When we peddle racist ideas, when we peddle xenophobia, that isn’t going to protect you from the virus,” he said. “Proper public health procedures and precautions will protect you from the virus. Racism won’t.”