Editor’s Note: This story was published before the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus a pandemic and Canada’s chief health officer labelled the virus a “serious public health threat.” For the latest coronavirus news, click here.
There are currently three confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Ontario. Another case was confirmed in B.C.
Two of the Ontario patients, who are husband and wife, recently travelled from Toronto to Wuhan, China, which is believed to be the epicentre of the outbreak.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said that although there could be more cases down the road, the risk to Canadians overall remains low.
But the new coronavirus has already created fear, panic and hysteria, experts say, and online, some have been seeing both racist and xenophobic conversations about Chinese people in particular.
READ MORE: Coronavirus — How to protect yourself
Terri Chu of Toronto recently spoke up about the fear of racism on Twitter.
“There’s a lot of fear, and we don’t want this to get ugly.”
As a mother, she is also concerned about how people will treat Asian children.
“Thankfully, my children are too young to understand (two and four) so I haven’t had to have this talk yet,” she said.
The York Region District School Board in Ontario issued a letter on Jan. 27 stating it is concerned about xenophobia and racism against the Chinese community due to the new coronavirus.
READ MORE: Ontario school board warns that coronavirus concerns veer into anti-Chinese racism
The statement came in response to an online petition circulating among parents that called on schools to ask students travelling from China to stay home for 17 days.
Chu says friends of hers are figuring out how to handle this topic with their children.
“My friends with older kids, they are resorting to telling their kids that people are afraid, and scared people do mean things. We want to encourage them to stick up for each other. We don’t know how else to approach this,” said Chu.
There’s a history of racism during disease outbreaks
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There’s a history in North America of racism towards Asian communities during a disease outbreak, said Ho-Fung Hung, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. Hung says many Chinese-Canadians felt they were targets of racist abuse during the SARS outbreak in 2003.
It’s a reminder of the “yellow peril” period throughout history, and particularly in the 19th century, when diseases were sometimes associated with Asian people, said Hung.
READ MORE: Countries look to evacuate citizens as coronavirus death toll rises to 106
“Historical precedent of disease and contagious disease showed it is counterproductive to just isolate or target a particular racial group,” he said.
“Isolating or assuming a certain racial group is carrying the disease is counterproductive.”
If a person hasn’t been to specific regions in China, there’s no reason to assume they could spread this virus, he said.
“Right now, the virus is still limited to mostly China and is not very widespread … in places like North America,” he said.
Chinese food becomes a target
Chu says the conversation and fear around food in particular is also racist.
“Every culture will have food habits that are unsavoury to other cultures,” she said.
“Whether or not this is the source of the disease, remember that animal eating practices all come with risks. Western farming practices brought us mad cow and antibiotic resistance.”
READ MORE: Coronavirus risk remains low in Canada despite first presumptive case — health officials
Chu’s family owned a Chinese restaurant in London, Ont., and during the SARS outbreak, her family took a hit.
“Like many others, we took a huge financial hit when people were afraid to eat out,” she said.
“Chinese places were avoided in particular. It was a rough time for everyone.”
Toronto website BlogTO specifically wrote about racist comments on its own content from readers, mostly referencing Asian people in Toronto eating bats.
Racist trolls flooded the website’s post on a new Chinese restaurant opening, warning others to avoid it and cook at home.
READ MORE: Panic over coronavirus is ‘very human,’ but experts say the risk is low
In a post for the Guardian, writer Sam Phan said the new coronavirus panic in the U.K. is also creating a hostile environment for East Asians.
“Perhaps it did not occur to some of these people, so happy to talk loudly in front of me, that I was also concerned about the virus — or that I, as a British citizen, was no more likely than them to be carrying the virus,” Phan wrote.
“They grouped all East Asian people together, without factoring in that perhaps we were British or, if not, we were from unaffected areas of China, or even came from other countries in the Chinese diaspora. We were all the same to them.”
‘We need to look at this from an infection point of view’
Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, tells Global News the reaction to aspects of the new coronavirus has been discriminatory.
“All of us, irrespective of where we’re from, need to look at if we’re feeling well and symptoms,” he said. “We have to be responsible.”
Bowman worked in hospitals during the SARS outbreak and heard a lot of discussion around avoiding Chinatown and going to Chinese restaurants.
“That’s very problematic because we need to look at this from an infection point of view,” he said.
“This isn’t a crisis … at a time like this, we need to stand together, and the last thing we need is to isolate people.”
Bowman thought Canadians should have learned from SARS, but unfortunately, people are still making racist and xenophobic comments. He remembers some being fearful of Chinese people altogether that year.
READ MORE: Canada is ‘much better’ prepared for Wuhan coronavirus than it was for SARS — expert
“If this were coming from Britain … I don’t think we’d be looking at Anglo-Saxon people in the same way.”
And in terms of the focus on food, Bowman says people all over the world eat wildlife — this isn’t unique to China or Asia.
“People in North America eat wildlife … it is not helpful to isolate it to Asia.”
The key is not to overreact and stand up against racism
It’s wrong and racist to avoid certain groups to feel like you have more control over your health, said Hung, explaining that it’s not only harmful, but it also doesn’t give you a legitimate understanding of how these illnesses actually spread.
“When you isolated a certain racial group, and you assume another racial group won’t have the risk of spreading the disease, then you might miss the agents that are actually spreading the disease,” said Hung.
Calls to quarantine students who have been to regions as large as Asia as a whole — as one Toronto school suggested — are going too far, he said.
READ MORE: Ontario health officials monitoring 27 people for possible coronavirus, no new cases confirmed
Over the next few weeks, Bowman says people may hear more racist chatter online and in person. This is the time to speak up, he says.
“We do not want to be teaching children these negative messages,” he said.
“We should be addressing it in the workplace … those of us who are teachers, we absolutely should.”
— With files from Global News’ Laura Hensley, the Canadian Press