A different kind of epidemic: racism in the wake of the coronavirus

Amongst several email updates sent out by Edinburgh university administration about the coronavirus, the most recent message marks a notable change in tone. Along with the usual notification about travel to the Hubei Province and Wuhan City and self- isolation, there is a third, newer notification. Gavin Douglas, the Deputy Secretary of Student Experience in Edinburgh warns in his email about the possibility of racial harassment targeting Chinese students and staff.

He urges anyone who has experienced racially charged harassment to contact university health and safety services, who will handle the issue with “due care and confidentiality.” This foreboding warning in the midst of an international health crisis is incredibly indicative of the fear and xenophobia that accompany large outbreaks like this one. And it also raises the question: Is Douglas’ warning coming to pass in our city?

Before we answer this, however, it’s important to examine the history of cleanliness-related xenophobia on the world stage. As early as the middle ages, people have had a tendency to blame diseases on marginalised groups that are considered to be outsiders. Merlin Chowkwanyun, historian and assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, says that this tendency has been prevalent in “both popular and scientific discourse.” In the mid-14th century, Jewish people were blamed for creating the bubonic plague by poisoning wells, as they were seemingly less affected by the disease.

In the 19th century, Irish immigrants were regularly discriminated against in America, as they were seen to be drunken, dirty, and disease ridden. In the 1980s, Haitians were banned from traveling to the US because they were all believed to be afflicted with AIDS, and in 2013 they were banned again after a significant diphtheria outbreak. And, in 2003, the SARS coronavirus led to significant racially motivated harassment against Chinese people and East Asians in general, and a similar situation seems to be emerging.

According to a report by The Guardian, Chinese people in the UK are reporting increasing levels of racism following the confirmation of several cases of the coronavirus in the Commonwealth. From verbal harassment and pointed stares on the street to racist comments online, Chinese-British residents are reporting increasing levels of racial tension in their towns, cities, and universities, and sadly in Edinburgh it is a similar story.

One Edinburgh student of Chinese-descent, in her fourth year of International Business, recalls seeing some East-Asian students wearing facemasks getting pointed at and laughed at in public. Wearing facemasks is a cultural practice in many Asian countries as a measure of respect. According to HealthGuidance, it is considered polite to wear face masks to prevent the spread of colds. She also notes a time in the library where the fear of harassment was especially poignant. “I didn’t want to cough,” she says, because she feared that people would assume that she had the virus. Instead, she says, “I ran to the bathroom to do it.”

Another student who was asked about her experiences with racism prefaced that she was not Chinese, but Taiwanese, a clear comment on the lack of effort to distinguish between Asian nationalities. She says that she has not experienced anything that she would consider to be racism; however, her friends do make comments to her about the virus in jest. She does report that she is afraid of the spread of the virus but does not think that most Westerners share her fears.

An Edinburgh student from Ecuador recalls an incident in her local grocery store where a local man told her to stay away from Chinese people because they “all carry the virus,” just as a group of Asian students entered the store. She recalls feeling shock and disgust at his clearly racist sentiment.

On Edifess, a local Facebook page that allows students in Edinburgh to anonymously submit thoughts and confessions, similar experiences have been reported. One Chinese-Australian student shared an experience in which they were told that “Chinese lack humanity” by two white women as they were walking home. Another Chinese student recalls someone pulling their scarf over their mouth and nose before staring and laughed at them as they passed by.

Some Edifess posts have expressed xenophobic sentiment as well. One post calls on Asian students to be patient with non- Chinese students as a lot of the discourse stems from a “legitimate fear.” It calls for all Chinese students to get tested for the virus whether they are from Wuhan or not. This post has been widely criticised in the comment section for “justifying blatant xenophobia” and using “fear mongering” tactics. Confession pages for other universities have seen similar posts, according to The Guardian.

This virus and the international health crisis surrounding it seems to be stirring up long-held prejudices against Asian people in our city, nationwide, and worldwide, so what are we meant to do about it? Some, like Edith Brancho-Sanchez, an assistant professor of paediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Centre, believes that although we must confront racism against Chinese immigrants and people of Chinese descent, reporting so widely on it can “run the risk of losing perspective on who the real victims are.”

Many, however, disagree. People like Roger Keil, a professor of environmental studies at York University, who worked with the SARS virus in 2003, feels that people in the public eye need to combat racism by uncoupling the virus from its origin.

Despite this difference in agreement on whether or not to lend weight to the study of the racist impacts of the virus, almost everyone agrees that this racism should be stopped. Consequently, what steps can be taken to confront instances of racism in our own backyard?

Professor Brancho-Sanchez believes that we must confront instances of xenophobia as they occur by spreading our knowledge about the virus. Thus, she believes that the media needs to stop sensationalising the virus and start distributing facts that will actually protect people. She claims that the spread of “misinformation” is to blame for the racist sentiments that we have been experiencing, therefore we all must educate ourselves about the virus.

We also need to go back to what Gavin Douglas talked about in his email update: we need to report it when we see it. Whether it happens to someone else or to us, we should take action to prevent it from happening again. Non-Asian people have to stand up for their friends, and for strangers, and we must band together to treat these racist sentiments as seriously as they are. If we stop finding humour in racism, and we stop allowing our friends and classmates to get away with xenophobia, we can create a more open, welcoming environment for our Chinese and Asian peers.


Emma Conn is a Senior Writer for the Features section of The Student. She is currently in her first year of studying History in Edinburgh, and enjoys writing about topics relating to social justice and bettering the world.

Image: Biscanski via pixino.com



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