The current coronavirus pandemic has created an environment of fear that is manifesting itself in increased racist abuse of Chinese people and other East Asians.
Life has stalled, in the UK and all over the world, and people wait inside for daily updates with constant nervousness. But, for some East Asians in London, being forced to stay inside during lockdown has a silver lining – going out in public during the rise of the current novel coronavirus had too often been a horrific experience.
One student told Eastlondonlines in February: “Just now on the road, there was one man shouting at me. ‘F*** off, Chinese virus’. I felt scared and went quickly away.”
COVID-19’s origins in Wuhan, China, provide the excuse for the abuse. This despite the virus’ presence in every continent except Antarctica (which the British Antarctic Survey aren’t certain will remain the case for long).
And, proportionally, the UK has far superseded China for cases.
At the time of writing on April 3, the UK’s tally of 497 cases per million people dwarfed China’s tally of 57 cases per million people. Meaning that a British person is statistically much more likely to have the virus than a Chinese person.
Another student said: “I don’t know why this is causing hatred toward Chinese people who are wearing face masks. It is protective and also slows down the spread of any virus.”
The mention of face masks as a cause for alarm is particularly troubling, showing the lack of understanding among perpetrators. Speaking to the Guardian, research fellow Yinxuan Huang directly cited “maskophobia” as the reason for the fear among his community.
Others looking out for Londoners are suffering as well. When Samantha Harvey, a Chinese-born councillor for rural Wakefield, tweeted a video on March 30 of Chinese medics arriving in London to provide assistance, the comments were heavily racist.
One user wrote: “Why do I not trust them?”
This goes to show that our boroughs are experiencing this problem as part of a wider trend. A Vietnamese curator, An Nguyen, was removed from her position at an art fair in Battersea. A Singaporean student, Jonathan Mok, was assaulted by four men on Oxford Street.
But the issue must be addressed locally as well as nationally.
Councillor Caroline Selman, Hackney’s Cabinet Member for Community Safety, told the Hackney Gazette: “Hackney is no place for hate, and discrimination against members of our Chinese community as a result of the coronavirus outbreak will not be accepted.”
“As long-time supporters of Hackney Chinese Community Services, the council and the police’s hate crime officer have met with the group to discuss their concerns, and will do everything we can.”
Yet Chinese students have been leaving the country en masse, believing that their home nation is now safer for them than anywhere in the UK.
A survey carried out by the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association and published on April 1 by the PIE (Professionals in International Education), an industry publication, found that 86% of Chinese students still overseas wish to return to China.
Risking the increased opportunities for exposure to the virus that come with international travel at the moment is not a decision to be taken lightly, but these students are braving it to avoid the hate crimes they are suffering here.
The Met Police have specifically addressed this in a post across social media, calling for anyone who is a “victim or witness of hate crime related to the COVID-19 pandemic” to come forward and tell them.
Further afield, organisations including the New York Times and Al Jazeera have reported on rises in xenophobia across the world as a result of the virus’ rapid and devastating spread.
And still, a community suffers.
This is day one of our Eastlondonlines’ #HatefulLondon series. Read the rest of the series here.