Jess Fu: As coronavirus spreads, so does racism and xenophobia

6:12 am on 10 February 2020

By Jess Fu*

Opinion - As New Zealanders, we like to think we live in a progressive country. But Jess Fu says our public image to the rest of the world hides the fact that New Zealand is extremely racist.

Passengers wear protective masks to protect against the spread of the Coronavirus as they arrive at the Los Angeles International Airport.

File photo. Photo: AFP

The hysteria around the coronavirus has uncovered deeply rooted anti-Chinese sentiments and xenophobic attitudes. The viral spread of disinformation and the mainstream media's framing of the coronavirus as a "Chinese" disease is dangerously intertwining racism and fear.

The coronavirus has sparked vitriolic responses across the country; a Rotorua Councillor has faced online abuse, and an Auckland doctor has been told to "Go home to China" after she sneezed on the bus.

It seems most people believe the virus can be passed on by every person of East Asian descent, which is not true. A Chinese New Zealander may not have been to China in many years or never been at all, so they are no more of a virus carrier than the next person.

But many Chinese New Zealanders still have family in China, and while they may be worrying about their family's health, they are becoming victims of racial prejudice instead of receiving compassion. Yet, there is no excuse to be hostile towards recent arrivals or immigrants.

The World Health Organisation has advised against travel restrictions as it could "have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit."

Despite this, New Zealand has joined the United States and other countries in implementing a travel ban on travellers coming from China.

By going against the advice of the WHO these countries are letting their policies be guided by racism and fear rather than rationality. It leads to the Chinese citizens of these countries being ostracized from their communities, and gives an excuse to those already prejudiced against them.

I am a proud New Zealand-born Chinese woman and I understood xenophobia from a young age. When I was eight-years-old, a group of Pākehā teenagers yelled the classic phrase at me, "Go back to your own country!" It's a type of memory that sticks with you.

So when the news of the coronavirus broke out, I was immediately concerned about the exclusion and bullying young East Asian children may face as a result.

At Rolleston School in Canterbury, an anonymous person emailed a parent calling Asians "virus spreaders" and that they need to protect the "Kiwi kids". In this time of stress, adults need to carefully consider the messages they send to their children and the long-term consequences on the mental health of young Asian children.

They shouldn't be made to feel unwelcome in their home and ashamed of their ethnicity.

Flushing, Queens, New York, USA, January 25, 2020 - Mask People afraid of the coronavirus During the Queens Lunar New Year Parade in Flushing Along with Thousands of Chinese Immigrants and Parade Goers.

Photo: AFP

With the media's spread of disinformation there has also been a resurgence of the narrative that Chinese people are dirty cat-and-dog-eaters. It feels like we have travelled back in time, regressing in our attitudes on race as a country, except this time apparently Chinese people also eat bats.

Videos and images of East Asian people eating bats are widely circulating on social media, which fuels the assumptions that Chinese people's eating habits are to be blamed for the virus.

In Facebook comments there has been a prominent rhetoric that Chinese people "deserve it" and it's "karma".

While the coronavirus is related to other viruses carried by bats, it does not mean that consumption of bats started the coronavirus. Researchers believe the virus may have started from bats but passed into other animals, which a person could have eaten.

The most viral video is of travel vlogger Wang Mengyun eating bat soup, which circulated along with false claims it was filmed at a Wuhan restaurant. The video was re-published by the New Zealand Herald and it provoked many xenophobic reactions online, like "Keep your eating habits in Wuhan China along with your diseases."

One person went as far as saying, "Those so called people are not human".

The Herald reported that the video was filmed in Wuhan, however it was actually shot in Palau, a Pacific nation where bats have been part of their diet for generations.

The Herald also re-published an article that suggested the coronavirus was created in a "mystery lab" near Wuhan, which there is no evidence to prove this. It is increasingly becoming more difficult to distinguish fake news and real news, especially when it comes from a major publication.

I am hopeful New Zealand can stand up to and recognise racism. There is a lot of good in this country, however currently the most hateful voices are the loudest.

We need to call out and hold news publications to account, especially those that publish disinformation. We need to be highly critical of what we read online.

New Zealand likes to tell itself a myth of being a peaceful, multicultural country, yet a different picture is depicted online with streams of anti-chinese vitriol appearing all over social media.

We need to remember that Xenophobia is also a dangerous disease, killing one's sympathy for others, and New Zealanders have proven they aren't immune to it.

*Jess Fu is an Auckland-based music writer for online magazine Earmilk

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