Rampant Racism in the Wake of the Novel Coronavirus

By Amelia Heartland

If you were to sneeze or cough in public today, would the people around you jump in fear? In the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic, the question for many people who are Chinese or ‘Chinese-looking’ is not “would” but rather, “how many”. In public places, I often find myself stifling a sneeze when dirt enters my nostrils or the chill breeze of an air-con washes over me.

When I first learnt about the Woolworths scandal in Port Hedland, WA, a part of me became concerned that I might also be thrown out of a supermarket or store just for walking in. Luckily, my local neighbourhood is pretty chill and mostly doesn’t care about coronavirus. “What’s a coronavirus? The beer?” is probably a pithy to describe the attitude of most of the people in my area. That being said, please don’t drink a coronavirus.

On 31 January, I witnessed an elderly man put a handkerchief over his nose and warily watch as we, a group of Asian descent, began to board the bus from the NIDA stop opposite UNSW. Interestingly enough, he removed his makeshift mask immediately after we had passed him. He may have forgotten how the air conditioning can circulate air particles throughout the bus. Moreover, he didn’t wear the handkerchief once he was around European-looking people. The coronavirus isn’t a potential Tinder date. It doesn’t discriminate. While this man’s actions would not have been enough to prevent a virus from infecting him, they had succeeded at making all the Chinese-looking passengers uncomfortable. 

A close friend of mine was shopping at 7-11, slightly inebriated, minding her own business after her birthday party, when a group of high school boys came up to her. They looked down on her, and snidely coughed ‘Coronavirus.’ My friend managed to play it off by deliberately coughing and flipping them off. Imagine the shock, anger and frustration that you would feel. First, would they do that alone? Second, would they do that to a group of men? Third, my friend who flipped them off was the birthday girl. (Happy birthday, my dear! Here’s a lovely comment on your face – but not in the way you’d hope.)

Another friend, who works at a pharmacy, was made to listen as a customer went on a lengthy rant about how the novel coronavirus only affects those of Asian descent due to their ‘significant’ differences in DNA, blood pH and overall body chemistry. He concluded that he would be safe from the virus, specifically citing the difference in the speed of the spread of the disease in China compared to Australia. Ahem. Sure…

Sadly, 2020 had a negative start in the wake of this new epidemic. Chinese New Year celebrations across Australia, including in my local council, were cancelled. Was this necessary? Possibly, especially considering the public outcry and rampant flow of confusing information regarding the novel coronavirus. Is it a great way to start the year? Definitely not. Is it racially or ethnically motivated? Probably.

All joking aside, it’s important to remember racism is still an issue and that an increasing number of people of Asian descent are experiencing racism in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus. The miasma of fear has also resulted in school children targeting a half-Chinese boy and other Chinese students at an Ontario school in Canada. I sincerely hope that an incident like this will not occur in Australia. Unfortunately, I won’t be surprised if it does.

Trying to protect yourself from the disease is smart. It’s important to take preventative measures, especially if you are a part of an at-risk group, such as the elderly, or people with compromised immune systems or other pre-existing conditions. However, you should be mindful and protect yourself without (unintentionally or otherwise) insulting particular racial groups.

For example, if you believe that wearing a face mask will make you feel more comfortable, ensure you are doing it properly and following professional advice. Wear it consistently when outdoors rather than only around certain ethnic groups. Touching or otherwise removing the mask can make it practically redundant according to research. However, what’s more important is to make sure you have appropriate measures to keep your hands clean, especially before eating or touching your face. This may mean carrying hand sanitiser with you and using it, or properly washing your hands. The novel coronavirus can be contracted if you ingest contaminated droplets or faecal material, or if they touch your eyes.

Also, I did wear a mask a few weeks ago, so I can’t judge.

It’s a running joke among the Asians I know at UNSW that peeps will think we have coronavirus when we sneeze or cough. Jokes help. What’s more important is awareness about the facts and re-learning how to not discriminate. We’re all human. Let’s act like it.

*This article has been published under a pseudonym.