'Racist intentions' laid bare as coronavirus fears fester at Western University

A Western University student who lived through the 2012 SARS outbreak with her parents in Beijing says fear over the current coronavirus epidemic in China has made racism and xenophobia palpable among her Canadian peers.

Some say fear is fuelling mistrust and racism in London's hallowed halls of higher learning

Students at Western are pushing for a hybrid learning model so that all students can feel safe in their education. (Colin Butler/CBC)

University students like to think of themselves as educated, cosmopolitan and worldly, but if the coronavirus epidemic that's playing out across the globe has taught Joy Ma anything about her colleagues it's that fear has revealed some of them to be uneducated, provincial and naive.

The second-year kinesiology student said the moment that pulled back the curtain for her was when a colleague, a woman in her 20's, came down with the virus after flying from Wuhan to Canada last month. Ma said the fact the woman was a Western student and had returned to London seemed to provoke a collective sense of dread on campus. 

"I felt like that did spike a lot of fear," she told CBC News.

Eventually the panic among her peers died down, but only after the woman was cleared by doctors who lauded her for going "above and beyond to protect the public" by wearing a mask and isolating herself despite having no symptoms. 

Some students uneducated, naive

Joy Ma, a second-year kinesiology at Western University says fear has created a palpable sense of racism and xenophobia among some of her peers. (Andrew Lupton/CBC News)

While the woman's recovery did much to dampen the smouldering fear on-campus, it didn't snuff it out completely.

Ma said she is having trouble understanding why so many of her fellow Western students seem so uneducated about the virus, even in a place of so-called higher learning. 

"I was very confused how the virus is now linked to us Chinese people specifically rather than people who only have been contacted with the virus."

Ma calls herself "Chinese-American." She and her parents lived through the 2012 SARS outbreak in Beijing. It means she's seen two different coronavirus outbreaks, one from each side of a cultural divide.

In Asia, wearing a surgical mask to ward off germs in public is not only common, it's considered polite in some countries. Here in Canada, Ma has noticed the masks in some cases serve almost like a visible cue for those wearing them to be shunned by those who don't understand. 

"Some of my friends who've decided to wear masks as a prevention measure, not that they're actually sick, people have begun avoiding them on buses in lectures," she said. 

"A lot of people on campus treating them with a lot of xenophobia and racist intentions."

It's why she put those feelings to paper, urging her fellow students to be kinder and gentler to each other, in a letter to the editor she penned that was recently published in The Gazette, the school's student-run newspaper. 

She said reaction from her non-Chinese colleagues has been "a bit hostile" in some cases, with students accusing the Chinese government of deliberately putting out misinformation or covering up information about the virus. 

"I don't blame them," she said. "They don't get 100 per cent of the information put out by China. The fact that a lot of Chinese information doesn't get translated into English doesn't really help peoples' perceptions."

with files from Andrew Lupton


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