Since emerging from central China last year, the novel coronavirus outbreak has taken more than 200 lives and infected thousands of people. Overnight, the World Health Organisation moved to declare the virus an international health emergency.
But away from the global frontline of disease prevention, there are fears over a different kind of virality: discrimination against Chinese nationals and people with Asian heritage has spiked in recent weeks, causing concerns for vulnerable communities in Australia and abroad.
Taking to Twitter yesterday, Gold Coast surgeon Dr. Rhea Liang said she faced a patient who joked about not shaking her hand for fear of contracting the illness. “I have not left Australia,” Dr. Liang wrote. “This is not sensible public health precautions. This is racism.”
Today a patient made jokes about not shaking my hand because of #coronavirus. In front of my team.— Rhea Liang (@LiangRhea) January 30, 2020
I have not left Australia. This is not sensible public health precautions. This is #racism. https://t.co/y8Odj68ovL
Brisbane writer Yen-Rong Wong also voiced her concerns on social media on Tuesday, saying “This is the first time I’ve ever felt physically unsafe in Australia because of my race.”
Re: racism and #coronavirus – This is the first time I’ve ever felt physically unsafe in Australia because of my race. I thought we were over this shit but obviously not.— Yen-Rong Wong | 黃彥蓉 (@inexorablist) January 28, 2020
While the World Health Organisation used this morning’s emergency announcement to warn against “actions that promote stigma or discrimination”, Australian social media is awash with discriminatory – and outright false – content.
This week, NSW Health was forced to issue a statement debunking a Facebook post from the non-existent “Department of Diseasology Parramatta”, while smaller Facebook groups have insulated harmful conspiracy theories about the virus.
2/2 Further, there is no such entity as the “Department of Diseasology Parramatta”.— NSW Health (@NSWHealth) January 28, 2020
NSW Health would like to assure the community that the locations mentioned in this post pose no risk to visitors, and there have been no “positive readings” at train stations.
Facebook today said third-party fact checkers are “reviewing content and debunking false claims that are spreading related to the coronavirus,” an “extension of our existing policies to remove content that could cause physical harm.”
It’s a tall order. Things are also sketchy on TikTok, which has become a hub for misinformation and discriminatory content.
ABC reports TikTok plays host to accounts suggesting the virus was unleashed by the Chinese government as an exercise in population control. In reality, the WHO has praised the Chinese government for its transparency regarding its response to the crisis.
Other posts from Australian users insinuate suburbs with prominent Chinese communities are viral hotbeds. Despite being untrue and flagrantly discriminatory (and derivative trash!), the posts have racked up thousands of views.
Just reminding you that the coronavirus doesn’t give you an excuse to be a dick to Asian people.— Simu Liu (@SimuLiu) January 29, 2020
Matters have not been helped by some local media reports. A Change.org petition calling on the editors of The Herald Sun to apologise for the phrase “Chinese virus panda-monium” has passed 50,000 signatures.
Separately, stories regarding an old and resurfaced video of a Chinese woman eating a bat – reporting which was echoed by PEDESTRIAN.TV – have been used as a springboard by bigots to spew racist abuse online.
It feels that a crisis has been co-opted by dickheads who’ve been waiting for the right moment to uncover their barely-hidden racial hatred.
In a new piece for The Age, Chinese national and Melbourne university student Wing Kuang writes “This is a global fight against the coronavirus, not a “Chinese virus”. Everyone, Chinese or not, should be prepared for the battle.”
Right now, it doesn’t seem that everyone is.
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