Fear of coronavirus could turn into stereotypes, racism and xenophobia directed at the local Asian community, says the director of Winnipeg’s Chinese Cultural and Community Centre.
Tina Chen, also a professor of Chinese history at the University of Manitoba, told 680 CJOB it’s part of a pattern that often arises with outbreaks of disease.
“In an increasingly globalized world, in one moment we like to celebrate all these interconnections, and when there’s an outbreak, and epidemic … there’s all of a sudden a heightened sense of where people come from, or presumptions of where they come from,” she said.
“Unfortunately in moments like this, the long-standing history, particularly in Canada from the 19th Century – concerns about the yellow peril, the idea that Asians are coming from outside, they’re somehow dangerous to our society, and they’re bringing in elements that could disrupt our security and safety – those come to the forefront.”
While Chen said we’re not hearing these concerns in Winnipeg, yet, all it would take are a few social media posts for those types of comments to surface.
In Ontario, the York Region District School Board issued a letter on Jan. 27 stating it is concerned about xenophobia and racism against the Chinese community related to the coronavirus outbreak.
The school board’s statement was 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.
“It’s flu and cold season, and my family – like others – most of us have had a cold or flu,” said Chen.
“In the last few weeks, when I cough, people say, ‘been to China recently? Coronavirus?’
“I think most people think they’re kind of funny, they’re just making conversation, acknowledging the state of the world … but do you think others get that same question? Do you think there’s a presumption or a need to ask others where they’ve traveled, whether they think they’re at risk?”
Chen said she’s often asked about images of people in China wearing surgical masks on their faces, and that it’s a cultural difference that isn’t properly understood.
The masks, she said, are worn for a wide range of reasons and are very culturally acceptable in that country. People can wear them because of concerns over pollution, or if they’re ill (but not infectious) and want to be able to go out in public.
“It is very different here,” she said. “People see those in the city wearing masks and they assume that they’re carriers of something they want to stay away from – rather than assuming maybe they’re just being proactive and ensuring public safety.”
Despite the low risk of coronavirus in Manitoba, many local businesses have reported masks flying off the shelves, with stores across Winnipeg being completely sold out.