The message York District School Board staff had been sending to parents on the coronavirus was pretty standard: Wash your hands; stay home if you’re sick; cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze. Then they saw the petition.
More than 8,000 people were calling for school boards in the region north of Toronto – a region in which the top reported ethnic origin is Chinese – to not allow students whose family members had travelled to China within 17 days to come to school.
On Monday, the York board released a note to parents to address another virus: anti-Chinese xenophobia.
“We are aware of an escalated level of concern and anxiety among families of Chinese heritage,” wrote Juanita Nathan, the board’s chair, and Louise Sirisko, its education director. "Individuals who make assumptions, even with positive intentions of safety, about the risk of others, request or demand quarantine can be seen as demonstrating bias and racism.”
Though public-health officials across the country have urged Canadians to take a measured response to the coronavirus, a panic akin to the one from 2003’s SARS outbreak has already taken hold. To date, there is one confirmed and one presumptive case of the new virus in Canada.
Avvy Go felt a tickle in her throat on the subway ride to work Monday, but willed herself to suppress the cough. She feared coughing on public transit as a Chinese woman might make her a pariah as it did for so many other Asian-Canadians during the SARS outbreak.
In Yellow Peril Revisited, a 2004 report about the impact of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) on Canada’s Chinese community, Ms. Go, the director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, detailed the myriad ways SARS affected her clients: Many suffered job losses after Chinese restaurants saw a steep drop in business; Asian claimants who appeared before the Immigration and Refugee Board faced staff wearing masks; and tenants reported being threatened with eviction by their landlords because they were Chinese.
Ms. Go shared much of this when she testified at Ontario’s public hearings on the SARS crisis but she was disappointed to find nothing about racism in the inquiry’s 2007 report. Recommendations on how to respond to racist rhetoric would have been helpful for future outbreaks such as this one, she said.
“As they prepare for the virus, they [should] also prepare for the virus of racism and have everything in place at the same time,” she said.
When Toronto Chinatown Business Improvement Area chair Tonny Louie addressed the crowd at Saturday’s Lunar New Year parade, he felt the need to explain his sore throat.
“I reminded everybody there that I do not have the virus. I just happen to have a cold,” he said.
The next day, he noticed a drop in business throughout downtown Toronto’s Chinatown and its dozens of restaurants – something he blames on fears about the virus. He repeated the message that the district was safe, as was the food, and called on politicians to have meals in Chinese restaurants as then-prime minister Jean Chrétien did during the 2003 SARS outbreak to signal to Canadians that doing so was safe.
But that sort of PR move might not be enough to counter racist messaging, given the power of social media.
In the past few days, video of a woman eating a bat with chopsticks in a restaurant has gone viral, with many suggesting, in posts heavy with racist rhetoric, that Chinese people eating foods seen as unusual to a Western palate has contributed to the outbreak.
The way in which the video has been shared has vilified and othered Chinese people, says Kevin Huang, executive director of the Hua Foundation, a Vancouver-based non-profit that promotes racial equity.
Rather than thinking of the coronavirus as an us-versus-them situation, Mr. Huang suggests using a global lens.
“Removing our Western exceptionalism and … humanizing [Chinese people] allows us to think about a more global concerted effort to try and contain this virus,” he said.
Why people would share misinformation like that while ignoring facts from public-health agencies speaks to how racist content “feeds into already pre-existing underlying biases or prejudices,” York University sociologist Harris Ali said.
In a research paper about SARS and the stigmatization of the Chinese population in Canada, he found that racist sentiments that had previously been internalized or only shared during private conversations “found explicit expression during the outbreak.”
Mr. Huang says the way some have drawn a connection between the virus and Chinese food is part of a long history of “yellow peril” or anti-Chinese sentiment.
Government policy that disenfranchised Chinese people, such as the head tax (an immigration tax imposed on Chinese arrivals), “fed into these tropes of this disgusting, uncivilized cultural grouping,” he said.
He has seen rampant misinformation and panic spread among Chinese-Canadians, too, some of whom are reacting to alarmist Chinese media reports. Last weekend, two Lunar New Year events in Vancouver were cancelled because of fear of the virus’s spread.
Ms. Go feels confident the Canadian health-care system is much better equipped to deal with containing coronavirus than it was with SARS, but she has little optimism about how it will contain the public’s fears.
“Unfortunately, because of the underlying racist attitudes that exist in Canadian society, it doesn’t matter what scientific evidence is there of how the disease has been contained, people will still believe what they believe,” she said.