When the coronavirus reached Canada, and other Western countries, it refuelled racism against Asian populations. Memes, mostly about food, have popped up and been spread across social media channels. And people everywhere are being mistreated, labelled as ‘unclean’ and told ‘to go home’ regardless of where they’re from or how long they’ve been in Canada. This is not a new experience for those experiencing discrimination. A similar situation occurred during the SARS outbreak in 2002. But that’s not where the history of racism against Asian populations began in Canada. So, let’s talk about coronavirus and racism in Canada.
The History of Racism in Canada
The perception of Chinese people as unclean was historically drawn from bad living conditions in Chinatowns. In 1887, Vancouver’s Chinatown was described by reporters as “an eyesore to civilization” and “pest-producing”. In 1890, during a cholera scare in Vancouver, the local press demanded the government take action against Chinatown.
As a result, the city council designated Chinatown as an “official entity” in the medical health officer rounds and health committee reports, despite there being no evidence that cholera started in the neighbourhood. An official entity is a designation that placed the neighbourhood under closer scrutiny for by-law infractions. Other designated entities included sewerages, scavenging sites, slaughterhouses and pig ranches – none of which were residential.
The perception of Chinese people being unclean and unhygienic didn’t just appear out of nowhere. The Chinese people were living in poor conditions that resulted in Chinatown being filled with garbage and manure. But this was hardly their fault, the area lacked a sewage system and residents lived in overcrowded spaces lacking ventilation. They repeatedly petitioned to improve infrastructure, but the authorities continued to neglect the area. They considered it a low priority.
It’s a direct result of the government neglect that these communities experienced higher rates of contagious diseases, including tuberculosis.
Sewage was finally introduced in 1896 but overcrowding was not resolved. Instead, the city authorities often resorted to the demolition of houses in Chinatown on the basis that they were “dangerous to the health of the city”. This left many Chinese workers homeless (source).
What causes these racist reactions in Canadians?
Only some outbreaks are racialized, says Roger Keil, a professor in the environmental studies department at York University, who studied the impact of SARS on the city of Toronto.
Neither H1N1, which emerged in North America, nor mad cow disease, which primarily affected the United Kingdom, generated a racial or ethnic backlash of this magnitude. Yet, those diseases that originate in China, like SARS and the new coronavirus consistently correlate with xenophobia – which is defined as dislike of or prejudices against people from other countries.
So, why does this occur?
It’s challenging to pinpoint exactly where this type of response comes from, but at least a portion of it likely stems from fear.
When we’re feeling fear we are uncomfortable and most of us don’t like to sit with that feeling, so we subconsciously look for someone or something to blame. Blame allows us somewhere to put that energy outside of ourselves. It often does provide some relief even if it’s only temporary.
The Chinese government accused the U.S. of spreading “panic” over the coronavirus by restricting travel to China and evacuating its citizens. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Washington has “unceasingly manufactured and spread panic.”
What can we do to change these attitudes?
- Examine your own biases. Be honest with yourself about the biases, stereotypes and assumptions you have about the coronavirus and who’s at risk – then challenge them.
- Educate yourself. Learn where the virus comes from, what the signs and symptoms are, and the preventative measures. Know that Chinese-Canadians are no more likely to contract the virus than any other Canadian if they haven’t recently travelled to China or other highly infected areas.
- Don’t allow yourself to be affected by others’ opinions. When there are many instances of racism and exclusion, it can be easy to allow this to refuel your fears. Don’t let it. Remind yourself of the knowledge you have obtained and be determined in maintaining your opinion and treating everyone fairly and respectfully.
- Manage your own anxiety. Managing your own fear and anxiety first can help reduce your fear associated with potential risks, and lower the chance of blaming others. (Check out our other article 7 Tips to Manage your Anxiety about Coronavirus)
- Stand up for others. When possible provide information to those who are spreading misinformation. If people you know are making racist comments take the time to speak with them about their assumptions, provide education or resources where it’s appropriate. Note: in most cases, this will be better received if it’s done on a one-to-one basis, or offline.
As Professor Keil says, for now, “there are two things to remember every morning when you get up: wash your hands and don’t be racist.”
Learn the facts about Coronavirus and what the actual risks are to Canadians.
As the number of cases of coronavirus increases – so does people’s anxiety. It’s normal to feel anxious but it’s important to manage our anxiety levels.
When a public health emergency, like coronavirus, hits the news channels and starts to invade our social media feeds, it becomes a major topic of conversation. Children are not immune from directly or indirectly picking up on these anxieties. Make sure to talk to your children about Coronavirus to keep them informed.