Cross Country Checkup

As fears of coronavirus outbreak grow, Chinese-Canadian mother and activist worries about racist backlash

When SARS — an illness caused by a different coronavirus believed to have originated in China — hit Toronto in 2003, mother and activist Terri Chu says that her community faced racist backlash.

'People would just see you and walk to the other side of the street,' says Terri Chu on the 2003 SARS outbreak

Passengers, and people waiting to pick them up, wear masks at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Jan. 26, 2020. The masks are a precaution against a coronavirus outbreak traced to Wuhan, China. (Evan Tsuyoshi Mitsui/CBC)

Amid growing concerns about the coronavirus outbreak originating in China, Terri Chu says she worries that fear of the virus could stoke xenophobia against Canada's Chinese community.

The Toronto-based mother and activist tweeted Saturday that she "discussed how to brace ourselves and the kids for the inevitable wave of racism coming our way" with other Chinese mothers in a chat group.

The novel coronavirus, which was first discovered in Wuhan, China, has killed at least 80 people and infected more than 2,000, mostly within China. 

The first "presumptive" case of this coronavirus in Canada was reported on Saturday. The patient is a man in his 50s who was isolated at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto after experiencing symptoms following a flight from Wuhan.

Previous coronavirus outbreaks have resulted in widespread cases of SARS and MERS. When SARS — which also originated in China — hit Toronto in 2003, Chu says that her community faced "racist" backlash.

"We weren't moms yet, and now that we are, we're sort of concerned about what our kids may or may not experience be it in the classroom or at school," Chu told host Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue.

Here is part of that conversation. 

When you say backlash during SARS, what did you experience? What do you remember from that time? 

We all sort of had different memories about what happened and, obviously, whether you're in a big city or in a smaller centre, it impacts you very differently.

My family owned a Chinese restaurant in London, Ont., back then and I remember it was just a period of being dead quiet.

It's not like we had a lot of travel to and from Hong Kong at the time, it was just the fear. It really impacted the small business. 

When you say dead quiet, did you mean people not coming to you to the restaurant? 

Absolutely. And obviously, in the immigrant communities, they have a lot of entrepreneurs because, as an immigrant, it's hard to get hired in whatever profession you may or may not have come from before.

So people go into their own small businesses, and they're absolutely dependent on people coming out. 

When you have a thing like this [coronavirus outbreak], that really impacts people's incomes, people's livelihood, it has a huge effect. 

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You mentioned that you've been talking about this with the moms group, a Chinese moms group. What are they saying to you about their concerns about kids going to school this week? 

Everybody brings back their own memories.

One said she used to teach piano and, as she waited for her ride to pick her up, there were a bunch of boys in a car that drove by and screamed "SARS" at her.

People would just see you and walk to the other side of the street, and that's a little more subtle. But we all experienced that subtle bit of racism in different ways.

Even now with what's happening with the coronavirus, I don't believe that we know exactly where it comes from and people are saying, "Well, that's because you Chinese people eat bats and you eat whatever." It's not really fair for the kids to have to listen to this either. They don't understand.

Don't forget that we've been here as a community for a very long time. Many of us don't even speak the language anymore; we don't really identify with anything in China.

It stings a little because you look at us and say, "Well, what did we do wrong?" And the racist undertones of that are enormous. 

Of course, the other thing that's going on right now at this time of the year ... you're preparing for the Lunar New Year. So how's the news about this virus impacted the mood this year? 

It's put a damper on things.

Some friends of mine this morning said they went to dim sum and said it was quiet, which is highly unusual as today is the second day of our new year. Normally, people would be out for the next two weeks, it should be really busy.

It impacts us because there is fear, there definitely is fear. I don't want to say it's unfounded because there's risks to everything. But just to put it all into perspective, if I'm not mistaken, I think 40 odd people died from SARS. [Editor's note: 44 Canadians died during the SARS outbreak.] 

But also, 40 odd [pedestrians] died from vehicular accidents ... got mowed down by cars in Toronto alone last year. If only we treated that kind of fatality the same way that we treat this, you know, I think we would be much better off as a society. 

Written by Ashley Fraser. Segment produced by Abby Plener. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Terri Chu, download our podcast or click Listen above.