Nfld. & Labrador

With coronavirus fears intensifying, MUN urges people to 'think before they talk'

Dean says the university has received complaints from people who witnessed offensive comments toward Chinese students.

University has received complaints from those who witnessed offensive comments toward Chinese students

Aimee Surprenant is the dean of the school of graduate studies and associate academic vice-president at Memorial University in St. John's. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Memorial University leadership is offering more details about why concerns were raised last week about possible racism and xenophobia on the school's campuses.

Aimee Surprenant, dean of the school of graduate studies, told CBC the university has received complaints from those who witnessed insensitive comments toward Chinese students in relation to the global outbreak of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

The comments were presented as light-hearted remarks about the "China virus" and quips about having to use hand sanitizer.

"Observers were actually uncomfortable with this sort of behaviour and really felt that the university should make a public statement to say people should be aware of the things they're saying and how hurtful it can be, even if it doesn't seem like it's a hurtful comment," Surprenant told CBC.

Jason Feng, an international student from China pursuing a master's degree in computer science at MUN, said he hasn't experienced any xenophobia related to the coronavirus outbreak. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

MUN president Gary Kachanoski responded to the complaints with a statement published in the Gazette, the university's news site, urging people to learn the facts and "refrain from making assumptions and judgments. And most important of all, treat others with respect and kindness."

He went on to say that some members of the university community "have been singled out and felt ostracized and mistreated by others" since the outbreak.

Kachanoski did not provide any specifics, but wrote, "Racism and xenophobia will not be tolerated on Memorial campuses."

The president has been unavailable for media interviews since releasing the statement, but Surprenant provided more insight Monday.

"We want people to think before they talk," said Surprenant, who is also MUN's associate academic vice-president.

The outbreak has its origins in China's Hubei province, and its capital city, Wuhan. 

As of Monday, the World Health Organization said China had reported 77,362 cases of COVID-19, including 2,618 deaths. There were another 2,074 cases in 28 other countries, including 10 in Canada, and 23 deaths. 

There have been numerous incidents in North America and beyond of people of Asian descent being harassed or attacked because of erroneous coronavirus fears.

MUN has a large population of international students, and president Gary Kachanoski is urging members of the university community to educate themselves about the outbreak. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

"We just wanted to get ahead of it before it started to get any worse," said Surprenant.

Jason Feng, one of more than 400 Chinese students studying at MUN, said he hasn't encountered any bad behaviour.

Feng is from China's Henan province, which neighbours Hubei province, and is pursuing a master's degree in computer science at MUN.

"Everyone around me, my friends, they all respect me," he said. "They may have some questions about the virus, but they ask respectfully."

Feng said he appreciated Kachanoski's statement.

"It minimizes tension and some misunderstanding of international students."

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