A new viral threat revives an old one: racist scapegoating

The SARS outbreak showed us that viral outbreaks can breed xenophobia. We've seen this before.

The SARS outbreak showed us that fear brings out the worst in some people. Did we learn from the experience?

Pedestrians wear face masks as they walk in downtown Toronto Jan. 27, 2020. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Last Thursday, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam was busy doing her job: keeping the Canadian public informed about the spread of the coronavirus, calming our worst fears and reminding us that we're all in this together.

Tam, who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in the U.K., took to Twitter to decry the reported rise in racist acts and vile comments on social media directed at people of Chinese and Asian descent since the coronavirus caseload began to grow.

"These actions create a divide of us versus them," she tweeted. "Canada is a country built on the deep-rooted values of respect, diversity and inclusion."

Tam's statement got more than 500 online comments right out of the gate — and a depressingly large number of them were themselves racist and ignorant. Some of those comments doubtless came from the usual bots sowing discord; many clearly came from actual Canadians. Tam came in for a lot of the vitriol personally — tweets telling her to "go home" or accusing her of using "the race card."

Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam offer an update on the coronavirus caseload in Canada. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

We learned some useful lessons from the SARS crisis of 17 years ago — lessons one assumes the federal government is bringing to bear now in the fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak in China.

Sadly, one of the things we learned back then is that illness isn't the only viral threat in the midst of an outbreak. Asian communities in Canada reported a rise in racist incidents linked to the SARS outbreak in 2003, as fear led to scapegoating in some quarters. Hate can be as tenacious as any virus.

Fear breeds all sorts of inexplicable and irrational reactions. Part of the job of public health officials and elected officials in times like these is to fight fear-fuelled misinformation and false rumours. It's the job of journalists, too, since good information can offer a strong shield against irrational fear.

Which explains in part why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked the Lunar New Year at an event in Scarborough at a Chinese banquet hall — greeting people, hugging people, shaking hands and eating the food.

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau gathers at the head of the table for tea during a Lunar New Year celebration at Casa Deluz in Scarborough, Ont., Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Now, those are all things Trudeau might have been doing anyway, but in the moment the act became symbolic — a gesture against irrational fear. "There is no place in our country for discrimination driven by fear or misinformation," Trudeau said. "This is not something Canadians will ever stand for."

It also took a page from former prime minister Jean Chrétien's own approach to the SARS outbreak. During the height of the outbreak, Chrétien sat down to a bowl of soup in a Chinese restaurant in Toronto. "We decided it was the right thing to do," he said at the time, "because there is no danger. All precautions have been taken."

Now, as then, we're hearing reports of racist behaviour and language targeting Asian Canadians — everything from slurs on public transit to children being taunted at school. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel rose in the House of Commons last week to talk about a racist comment she'd heard on the street.

"At time when many Chinese Canadians are struggling [with] deep concerns for the welfare of friends and family in China, we must stand against the normalization of xenophobic mores against people of Asian descent," she said.

If the bipartisan messaging from the Commons was encouraging, some of the online response to our chief national health officer's words of warning is not.

The social media effect

The challenge facing Tam and other public health officials may be more daunting now than it was in 2003. When SARS hit Canada, infecting 375 people and killing 44 of them, racism-driven fear caused businesses to close. SARS even damaged Toronto's global brand when the World Health Organization briefly warned people against travelling there. But social media technology was in its infancy back then, and misinformation was much harder to spread around.

After the SARS outbreak passed, the report of a commission led by Ontario Superior Court Justice Archie Campbell identified the lessons-learned from a public health perspective: it recommended better official communication and better protection of healthcare workers, among other things. (It's worth noting that we didn't even have a Public Health Agency of Canada or a Chief Public Health Officer until 2004.)

We're probably better prepared for the coronavirus now than we would have been without the SARS experience. But that experience also warned us that disease outbreaks can tear at our communities in ways vaccines can't touch.

In 2004, academic Carrianne Leung put out a report of her own, titled "The Yellow Peril Revisited." It explored the deeper effects of SARS on Chinese and Southeast Asian Canadian communities — effects that went far deeper than the economic impact.

"The crisis also took a mental, psychological and emotional toll on members of these communities," Leung wrote. "The effects of racism are complex, affecting self-esteem, self-identity as well as shaking the confidence in the environment."

The report also accused the media of stoking fear of Asian Canadians by associating SARS solely with Asian nations and amplifying "hysteria."

Are we handling it better this time? Media outlets in Canada seem to be steering clear of describing this new virus as "from Wuhan" or "Asian." As of publication, only four Canadians have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. No one here has died of it.

The media coverage has been far from perfect, but it's better than it was in 2003 and it seems to be informed by a genuine sense of the responsibility journalists share with political leaders and public health officials: to keep people informed without making things worse.


Rosemary Barton is CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, based in Ottawa.

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