Opinion: Fighting the coronavirus on campus: combat xenophobia with effective action

Racism has distracted from the consequences of the coronavirus
Face masks have been in high demand since the virus outbreak. 
SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
Face masks have been in high demand since the virus outbreak. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

China is a common feature in newspaper headlines. But now, it’s not a potential trade war or tabloid domestic politics that’s drawing the world’s attention. It’s the outbreak of a new, deadly strain of coronavirus in the city of Wuhan, Hubei in central China.

At the time of publication, there have been over 34,000 reported cases of infection and 723 confirmed deaths. The majority of all those who are infected are located in China, with only seven cases in Canada.

Each time a deadly disease or outbreak occurs, people are always quick to place blame on governments or organizations. So, it is not surprising that people are blaming the Chinese government for the spread of this disease. However, this concern is misplaced and does little to improve the containment and treatment of the coronavirus. Instead, rumours have spread and incorporated racist and xenophobic beliefs, fuelling discrimination.

As I leisurely browsed through Twitter and Reddit, some comments caught my attention. One comment read that “China is disgusting because Chinese bring virus to Canada.” Another read, “All Chinese people eat bats and dogs.”

Most people hope to only make empirical judgements based on logical reason or realistic probability when disseminating information. However, it should be noted that in any practical situation, most people just diffuse information based on their emotions.

When dealing with fear, sensational rumours are likely to spread, since people are receptive to negative information. People would rather choose specious facts over the uncertainty that hangs in the balance because negative information allows them to satisfy their anger and fear, even if only by placing blame on an entire community — one that is suffering from the very virus that we are afraid of.

While the coronavirus did originate in China, stereotypes and unsubstantiated rumours have caused conversations that are inaccurate and racist. According to The New York Times, the illness is said to have started in “a wholesale market in Wuhan, a city in central China, where vendors legally sold live animals from stalls in close quarters with hundreds of others.”

This piece includes several key terms like “Wuhan,” “China,” and “live animals.” From these facts, individuals online have created fictional narratives that emphasize cultural differences in order to explain the origins of the coronavirus, like the unsubstantiated rumour that the virus originated from “eating bats.”

The subsequent spread of these speculations has an undeniably racial and othering tone, which distracts from and minimizes those who are at the epicentre of this outbreak. While these online trolls may just be looking for a target to express their fear, there is a real and negative impact due to their words.

However, it should be clear that racism should not be the focus of our discussions of the coronavirus. Instead of focusing on those affected by the illness, some have used the atmosphere of fear to advantageously inject racist motivations into popular discourse.

According to BBC News, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross has claimed that the coronavirus could boost US jobs. Ross’ sentiment is incredibly insensitive, as he focuses on the positive effects of the virus on the growth of the US economy, and neglects the misery of thousands of people. He also acknowledged that Donald Trump’s border policy, which bans foreign nationals who have recently visited China from entering the US, has been successful — because the virus is destroying China rather than the US. Moreover, his comments reveal that Trump is disguising his racism with populism and patriotism.

I believe that those who spread misinformation online may not express such beliefs if they were given the opportunity to listen to a rational voice, rather than hate speech from racist politicians.

Canada, by contrast, shows a big difference. According to CBC News, Justin Trudeau said on Feb 1 that, “There is no place in our country for discrimination driven by fear or misinformation.” He also mentioned that “This is not something Canadians will ever stand for.”

Many of the infected Canadians who’d just returned from China isolated themselves, reported to customs when they came back from China, and either called 911 or went to emergency rooms immediately after they started showing symptoms. Their social consciousness should be respected because without this self-awareness, the virus would have spread much faster. These people and the community that they represent should not be attacked because of their race and cultural identity.

In addition, a large theme of Western media reporting has been focusing on criticisms of racism rather than efforts to inform the public of the gravity of the situation in China. Instead of giving attention to those who preach hate in this time of crisis, we must work toward improving the situation in Hubei and all other affected areas.

In order to eliminate fear, we must face it with bravery. We need to refocus our efforts to fight this disease. Recently, the sale of face masks, including medical masks and N95 masks, has become robust, with prices skyrocketing online and in stores. This practice has also come to the UTSG campus, as the U of T Bookstore — which is operated independently from the university — recently placed sale overpriced boxes of the masks on sale; they have since apologized, and removed the masks soon after.

At $100 and $160 per box, the bookstore’s prices for the face masks were much higher than their expected value. Even though it’s delightful to hear many students complain about the school’s behaviour, it is essential to further our actions beyond criticizing.

More than 20 Chinese student groups across U of T’s three campuses are currently working together to organize donations of medical supplies to hospitals in China.

“As an international student, we should do something,” said third-year psychology and political science student and president of the University of Toronto Wu Chinese Cultural Association, Thie Yan Waon. He commented that “The people back home have given us a lot of support.”

I hope that after the bookstore conflict, U of T students will pay more attention to the viral crisis happening in China, and concentrate their efforts on finding and promoting donation information and supporting other methods to help those on the frontlines of this outbreak. It is only through support and aid that we can help combat the coronavirus.

Various Chinese communities held weeklong fundraising efforts at various locations across all three of U of T’s campuses, which concluded on February 3. Fortunately, they reached their donation goals within a week, thanks to the generosity of the U of T community. Waon remarked that some local students have been very generous.

Courage is the anthem of humankind; the virus will ultimately be contained as long as we have enough courage and confidence. However, we must be careful not to destroy ourselves with fear, discrimination, and rumours first.

In the future, when we talk about the coronavirus, it will not be a crisis that represented the distrust and divergence amongst different cultural groups, but a moment when all members of the U of T community came together to fight against this seemingly-unstoppable enemy.

Yixuan Li is a second-year Economics and Public Policy student from New College.

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