Wave of racism and hate crimes rises as COVID-19 spreads


As the coronavirus spread around the world, racism and xenophobia also ran rampant, targeting immigrants and migrant workers from Asian countries.

The usual racial stereotypes, from poor personal hygiene to strange eating habits, are also tossed around against them.

Ethnic Asians have been assaulted, called dirty and had other racial slurs hurled at them on the streets of Britain, while Chinese, Japanese and Korean stores and businesses have been vandalised elsewhere in Europe.

Supermarkets in Australia have reportedly turned away Asian customers, while in New Zealand, a Chinese parent received an e-mail which said that “our Kiwi kids don’t want to be in the same class with your disgusting virus spreaders”.

In Kuwait, an actress called for migrant workers to be deported to save hospital beds for local coronavirus patients, while a Bahraini man was filmed complaining that migrant workers “don’t know how to use toilets properly” in a video that went viral.

Singaporeans have not been spared either. In Melbourne, a Singaporean student and her Malaysian friend were punched and kicked as their assailants shouted “coronavirus” and told them to “go back to China”. In London, a Singaporean law student was punched in the face by a group of attackers and told “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country”.

“The idea that Asians are dirty, eat strange foods and are vectors of disease has existed for as long as Asians have been in the US, and these ideas continue to exist today,” Korean-American writer Marie Lee Myung-ok, a writer in residence at Columbia University’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, wrote in an essay published on the Salon website.

She detailed how rumours that the Chinese were disease vectors began as the continued influx of immigration began to threaten job prospects for white labourers in the United States, leading to a baseless quarantine of San Francisco’s Chinatown during an outbreak of smallpox in 1876.

English professor Josephine Park, who directs the University of Pennsylvania’s Asian American studies programme, told The Straits Times: “Xenophobia and racism have a long history in this country, and there has often been a connection between disease and racial outsiders. The notion of immigrant communities fostering disease is a familiar racist attitude.”

The bigoted idea that immigrants are dirty has its roots in history, said environmental historian Carl Zimring, who traced the evolution of the racial stereotype in America in his book titled Clean And White.

“In industrialised societies, many necessary jobs such as handling garbage, human waste and laundry are unpleasant. Maintaining the public health of modern societies requires sanitary infrastructures that include the labour of sanitation workers, janitors, laundry workers and related occupations,” Dr Zimring, a professor at the Pratt Institute in New York City, told The Straits Times.

For Asian-Americans, a group in the cross hairs now amid the spike in COVID-19 cases, the racism they face is worsened by the US’ often tense relations with China and racist statements made by political leaders.

US President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”, saying it was a nod to its origins in Wuhan, China, despite protests from civil rights activists that doing so could incite racism. (Source: The Straits Times)