Opinion: The coronavirus is scary but it is not an excuse for racism

The only way we’ll beat COVID-19 is by working together and being kind to one another, regardless of who you are or where you’re from.

Like most Asian kids growing up in Canada, I first learned about the Yellow Peril in the handful of pages afforded to Asian diaspora history in social studies. In order, it was: Canadian Pacific Railroad, Yellow Peril, Japanese WWII internment, Chinese Head Tax. There the Yellow Peril lay, forever in the dusty white annals of public school history lessons. Or so I thought.

I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you that the Yellow Peril isn’t just a shameful artifact left behind in the history books. It lives on in many guises, but in the last few weeks in Vancouver and the world, the Yellow Peril has reared its ugly head in restaurants, parking lots, and newspapers.

I’m talking about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, of course. Racism has people linking viruses, tiny DNA bits in protein capsules with zero neurological capability, to ethnic background and appearance. It doesn’t matter whether you’re actually Chinese or not. As long as someone out there thinks you look Chinese enough, you’re at risk of being beaten up, spit on, or the target of horrible tirades

It’s a fact that viruses spread with no regard to skin or person or race. But if the hordes of Facebook comments are to be believed, you can only spread the novel coronavirus if you’re Chinese. When Donald Trump tosses out the so-called “Chinese Virus” label, it’s a racist dog whistle that eggs on society’s worst instincts. And these falsehoods have real-life consequences. 

A few months ago, my mom flew to China for my youngest aunt’s funeral in Beijing. My aunt died after a protracted and painful battle with stomach cancer and the Chinese national medical system, leaving behind her husband, a young daughter, and family. She was only 52 years old.

The news about the coronavirus broke two weeks or so after my mom returned to Vancouver. She had spent a week in Hong Kong after leaving Beijing and before coming back. At the time it was first reported, the virus was still confined to Wuhan city and Hubei province. Beijing is 1,152 kilometres from Wuhan and Hong Kong is 921 kilometres away, but it didn’t make a difference. 

Her coworkers immediately began behaving as if my mom was infected. My mom, who had zero symptoms and is the most hygienic person I know thanks to those Asian hypochondriac mother genes. Eventually, my mom had to pay the doctor a completely unnecessary visit to get a note to confirm that she didn’t have COVID-19. 

In the back of our minds, I think we were scared that this might happen. That doesn’t mean that we were prepared to realize some of our worst fears about people; people my mom had worked with, joked with and talked to for years. Here they were, isolating and shunning her based on racist stereotypes and prejudice after an awful family tragedy. 

So, here’s a handy guide to combatting COVID-19 that is based on real actions you can take and not misinformation.

The Official COVID-19 Cheat Sheet™, triple-wrapped and dunked in bleach for your comfort: 

  1. The best way to prevent any illness, not just a novel coronavirus: wash your hands and practice good hygiene. Masks are unnecessary for the public unless you are in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, or if you have COVID-19 yourself.
  2. We need to work together to flatten the curve. Social distancing – limiting large groups, cancelling events, avoiding public places – is an important aspect of pandemic containment. Practice it, preach it, and prevent infections. Make some friends on the internet. 
  3. Panic-buying is not the answer. We will not run out of toilet paper. Essential services and goods (i.e. toilet paper) will be available with little interruption. 
  4. Support your local businesses that will be hurting during this time. It’s not necessary to show up in person. Buy a gift card to your favourite restaurant (why not your neighbourhood Chinese restaurant?), or make a donation to your local symphony orchestra through their website. 
  5. This is the time to practice compassion. I don’t mean go out and hug your neighbours, but join your local neighbourhood or city group and ask if anyone needs assistance getting groceries or running errands, at an appropriate social distance of course. Simple acts of kindness will go a long way. Groups like the Asian Unification Project and COVID-19 Coming Together are good examples in Vancouver, but you’ll find local groups in most cities. 

It’s true that we live in trying, tense times. There’s a lot we don’t know about the virus, and some of us live in places where information is either unreliable or whipping from one extreme to the next. However, racism, hate crime, and boycotting Asian-owned businesses isn’t the answer. It never was. The only way we’ll beat COVID-19 is by working together and being kind to one another, regardless of who you are or where you’re from. 

Yes, COVID-19 is scary, but it doesn’t mean we should be scared of each other.

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