The Coronavirus Panic Is Racist and Imperialist
East and South-East Asian women reveal how the outbreak of COVID-19 has affected their daily lives
“Stop using the coronavirus excuse to express your racist shit,” said 22-year-old Emanuele Petrini, in his recent mask-inspired make-up look. The make-up artist from Viareggio, Italy, is ding, ding, ding, right on point. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, xenophobia and racism towards East Asian people have risen. In other words, your deep-seated racism is showing.
It’s not just Chinese people who have experienced this prejudice, but also anyone who may ‘fit’ the description of what a Chinese person may stereotypically look like. Just like how post 9/11 saw the rise of Islamaphobia towards Muslims and those from Arab and South Asian descent, Sikhs and Hindus were also attacked as racists ignorantly presumed they were Muslim. The same is currently happening to those from South-East Asian backgrounds and anyone who may look slightly Chinese.
As someone whose ethnicity is always a guessing game for others, when coughing on a train coming from London the other day, the carriage became silent. The older couple next to me became stiff and, frankly, looked terrified. Throughout the hour and a half journey, I was greeted with side glances while others crumpled into themselves and shifted their position away from me.
Yet, as a British Bangladeshi woman, I can’t help but think about my minority peers who are suffering from xenophobia and racism explicitly. Just how is this affecting minority communities in the UK who are already marginalised by right-leaning anti-immigration rhetoric pushed by the Conservative cabinet and peddled by the mainstream media?
On one hand, the numbers of those affected by the virus in the UK are rising. President Donald Trump has just announced that 26 European countries are suspended to travel to the US. Italy has closed bars, restaurants and shops in hopes of halting the virus, and the Republic of Ireland has closed its schools and colleges until the end of March.
On the other hand, those who are from Asian backgrounds, who will be just as affected as any other (white) British, American and Irish citizen, and who are also just as innocent when it comes to the spread of the virus, are having to endure blame, othering and racism that is shaping their every day as well as their livelihoods.
On the March 9, Michelle Chai’s tweet went viral. She said, “This is going to sound kinda mad, but this week, pls consider making your weekly takeout a Chinese takeaway. My family’s businesses have all been impacted hugely by coronavirus panic.” Her tweet brought stark light to the epidemic of racism that is currently being justified as a health and safety precaution.
When speaking to the freelance editor from Hertfordshire, Chai went on to say, “The outbreak has sent waves through my family. On Sunday, we all gathered for our weekly get-together. Even my uncles and cousin joined us, which is unheard of as they’re usually at the shop. My cousin mentioned that business had been down by probably 50-60 per cent and he didn’t really know what to do. That’s his livelihood; that’s our family’s livelihood. So I put a tweet out because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
So as a society, what are we showing to families like those of Chai’s? That it’s fine if Chinese or Asian people get ill and lose their jobs and homes as long as the rest of us aren’t too inconvenienced? When speaking to Chai, she pointed out that it was upsetting to hear people shrug it off as dangerous ‘only to the elderly’ when her father has a compromised immune system. But as a Chinese immigrant with roots from Hong Kong and Malaysia, who will look out for him?
Reports show that gaps in Chinese supply chains as a result of the outbreak may take 12 weeks to solve, and this will impact everyone, especially small companies and countries. When stocks are running low, the rich and larger clients will be prioritised as they will be able to cushion themselves from the price increase. Well, what about our local Chinese, Thai, Cantonese takeaways all of us are so familiar with? The nail salons and massage parlours we usually are so happy to book on the cheap?
“Beyond that, I’ve personally endured people talking about me. People saying things like ‘she should really be indoors, or go back to her own country’ in public, thinking I don’t understand English,” says Chai. “A woman wrapped her scarf around her face twice when I stepped on my commuter train a few weeks ago.” These subtle and covert experiences are being felt more and more by people from East Asian backgrounds.
This was shown when Leeds-born British-Chinese Global Markets, Growth and Partnerships Lead at Cult Beauty, Chikay Lo, sent me a video of her experience when travelling on the tube. We all know the tube is a place where people are packed like sardines in a tin can, yet the space around Lo was significant. “I posted an Instagram story yesterday of a tube carriage where all the seats in the carriage were taken, apart from the two seats either side of me.
“This usually happens on public transport where people see me and then walk away or pull up their scarves to cover themselves. For my sister, someone actually got on the tube, saw her, then walked straight off.” Whereas for investment professional Katherine May Hussein, it’s drivers cancelling her rides repeatedly, one after the other. “All of a sudden the car just speeds up and drives off. Thinking he didn’t see me, I tried to jog towards his car, manically waving at him but this got cancelled and so does another,” says Hussein. “It’s hard not to think that the way images of East Asians are used in every COVID-19 article and news clip hasn’t fed into xenophobia in London.”
This spike in racism, whether it’s trying to get an Uber or it’s East Asian students like Jonathan Mok being punched in a racially aggravated assault where coronavirus was referenced, undoes any sense of belonging. It shows how fickle we are when it comes to deciding who is to be respected in this country and who is to be prioritised.
“The ignorance of morons doesn’t anger me or even upset me,” says Lo, “but it does worry me that in a time of panic, so many regress to racism and xenophobia. If you are stupid enough to think that the virus is Chinese, I don’t want to sit next to you either.”
For account executive Amie Tran, whose parents fled the Vietnam war and came to Britain as refugees, “I’ve always felt less than, othered, and have been ashamed of my ethnicity and have tried to disassociate myself with my race my whole life.
“It’s only in the last couple of years I have become proud, and slowly learnt to love my race and my ethnicity. And racist comments, especially with the fear of coronavirus and xenophobia, that one comment can shatter every ounce of confidence I have spent years building up. I feel so small and dirty, my being me is inherently wrong and looked down upon.”
Trying to keep away from those who may ‘look’ infected is also a reflection of the imperialist thinking we have in Britain, left by our history of colonialism and Empire. The idea embedded in our culture that ‘foreigners’ and those who are immigrants are synonymous with being dirty is still prevalent.
For so long, our bodnas or lotas (handheld bidets), our hand and water techniques and squatting loos have been mocked. Strange, exotic, jungle ways to keep clean were looked down upon as if they were barbaric when in fact, a 2015 research study into global hygiene standards shows that a shocking number of people in Britain do not wash their hands. Now those same people are probably buying hand gel on the black market and stocking up on toilet paper. When many cultures, for example, Muslim communities across the globe where during the practice of wudu before prayer, the act of washing yourself, is practised around five times a day. The cultures we say are dirty, are in fact those we need to be learning from.
In a time where parents are buying baby milk powder in bulk and refusing to share, where biscuits, bread and pasta are out of stock, people are revealing an innate selfishness.When in fact, what I’ve learnt from how quickly this virus has spread is how local our world is. How we’re all so inextricably connected. It’s up to us to choose whether we act with generosity, and recognise the fortune and privilege in living in a country that not only has wealth, but has a history of influence around the globe. Or we can panic and continue to worship only ourselves and forget about those who can’t afford to bounce back. Those who don’t have access to a healthcare system, who are buying expired medicine or can’t buy that extra ready meal for the week. I’d argue that’s a lot of pasta to eat by yourself.