The Current

Chinese Canadians speak out against racism, misinformation in wake of coronavirus​​​​​​​

As the new coronavirus, which originated in China, spreads around the world and to Canada, Canadians of Chinese descent say they are facing racism and stigma.

The spread of the virus is bringing back anti-Chinese stereotypes, says Frank Ye

Incense burns as people gather to mark the Lunar New Year at the International Buddhist Temple, in Richmond, B.C., late on Friday January 24, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

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Chinese Canadians are speaking out against racism and stigma they have seen or experienced in recent weeks as fear and misinformation have spread in the wake of the new coronavirus.

"The spread of this virus, just like the spread of SARS, has been used to bring back a lot of anti-Chinese, anti-Asian tropes and racist stereotypes that really date back throughout centuries in Canada's history," Frank Ye, a student at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"[It's] this idea of 'yellow peril,' of this Chinese horde coming to destroy Western civilization."

Ye has been tracking online reaction to the coronavirus, and says he's seen posts labelling Chinese people as "dirty" or "disease-ridden."

He added that Asian Canadian friends have told him about people moving away from them or covering their mouths in the subway and other public places.

"[There's] this sense of anger of having this label painted on you, of having your community painted as this monolith," he said.

Ye said he learned that on Monday his mother, a nurse at a Toronto hospital, was asked by a patient for a mask.

The man wasn't coughing or sneezing; rather, he said there were "just so many Chinese people around here," according to Ye.

Frank Ye said his friends and family members have already started experiencing small incidents of racism as the coronavirus outbreak has grown. (Dewey Chang)

He said it "was very, very, very painful to hear" stories of frontline healthcare workers of Chinese descent like his mother facing discrimination while putting their own health at risk.

The new form of coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China last month. China's National Health Commission has so far recorded 106 deaths, and more than 4,500 cases in the country as of Tuesday.

There is currently one confirmed case and another presumptive case in Toronto. On Tuesday, B.C. health officials announced another presumptive case in the Vancouver area.

'We must come together as Canadians'

On Monday the York Region District School Board, north of Toronto, posted a message warning parents about racism against the Chinese community.

More than 9,000 people signed a petition calling on the school board to keep children whose family members had recently traveled to China home from school for 17 days.

"At times such as this, we must come together as Canadians and avoid any hint of xenophobia, which in this case can victimize our East Asian Chinese community," school board officials wrote.

Another petition from a University of Waterloo student called on the Ontario government to shut down all campuses "to prevent further spread of the virus." As of Tuesday afternoon it had nearly 30,000 signatures.

Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto who was a frontline healthcare worker during the SARS outbreak in 2002-3, said the petitions were "a strong overreaction, and there's clearly elements of racism to it."

Bowman said the petitions called for actions that aren't rooted in science or the advice of public health officials. He explained people should only be isolated if they showed symptoms of illness, not simply because of where their relatives had travelled.

Mary Grace Baguio hugs a relative after arriving on a flight from Hong Kong at Pearson airport arrivals, shortly after Toronto Public Health received notification of Canada's first presumptive confirmed case of coronavirus, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 26, 2020. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

"Outbreaks in the 21st century are global, and we need to look at this from a global point of view," he said. 

"It's not about China, it's about the whole world."

Ye hopes that people turn to public health experts for information on the virus, and not let misinformation fuel a widespread panic.

"It's very important to not let our response and how we react to this be driven by paranoia. We need to listen to the facts," he said.

Echoes of racism during SARS outbreak

Like Ye, Bowman said the panic and stigma he was observing reminded him of reactions in the early days of the SARS outbreak.

In 2003, he said, he saw people avoiding Chinatowns, and colleagues of Asian descent reported that people would move away from them. 

"People's reactions tended to be often quite guttural. There was clearly racism," he said.

Ontario mother concerned about racist backlash from coronavirus

3 years ago
Duration 6:05
Terri Chu, who says she experienced racism in London, Ont., during the SARS crisis, is worried about it happening again due to the coronavirus.  

Terri Chu, a mother and activist in Toronto, recalled a friend of hers who in 2003 was taunted by a group of high school students in a car, who screamed "SARS! SARS!" at her as they drove past.

"That's the taunting that we fear as parents that we don't want our kids to have to go through," she said.

Chu said she hoped that non-Asians will speak out against that kind of discrimination now.

"If there's one thing I can ask from our allies and our friends, it's just to be there for your friends, to stand up for us, to stand up for the community," she said.

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Max Paris, Cameron Perrier and Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.