From “China virus” to “UK coronavirus variant”, what is the pandemic telling us about xenophobia?

With Coronavirus shifting its major battlefield, will there be more mutual empathy between different ethnic groups in terms of stereotypes and racism?

Several months ago, my friend and I were called “Coronavirus” and teased by three teenagers on the road in the UK. Provokingly, one of them even acted like an infected person dying from breathing difficulties.

Completely disturbed by the mishap, “it’s not funny,” we said in a cold and serious tone. But it was useless as they even followed us down the street with their misbehaviour continuously going on.

Nothing more serious happened in the end but the name-calling itself was psychologically harmful.

To my further dismay, since the epidemic started spreading globally, these sort of racist remarks, insults, cyberbullying or in some cases, physical assaults – have become no stranger to the Asian diaspora.

In other words, xenophobia against the Chinese went rampant and out of control accordingly.

“Yesterday when I was jogging, someone yelled something at me… and I got called a disease spreader the other day,” said Pamela Yuen-Elkerbout, who was born in Canada following her parents’ immigration from Hong Kong.

“I mean, it’s hurtful,” she added, “I don’t want to start an altercation… there have been cases of people being physically attacked here… it does make me just want to stay home even more. It’s like I stay home to avoid the virus and also racist.”

Besides Pamela, the other two British Asians I interviewed for a journalist project have experienced similar verbal harassment in London and Scotland respectively.

In fact, when the so-called “Wuhan virus” first broke out and began to go across the borders and oceans — paralyzing much of the West — many international media covered studies from the US and UK, indicating that coronavirus-prompted anti-Asian sentiments were on the rise.

Though it would be completely irrational to blame COVID-19 for causing racism, it has certainly stoked the hostility against Asian ethnic groups, transforming more inward prejudice into outright hate crime.

From January to March 2020, “victims identified as ‘Oriental’ experienced a five-fold increase in racist crimes”, a statement written in a published report from the UK parliament while the official number is believed to be underreported.

A few months later, Home Office minister further pointed out a striking figure, 21% surge in hate incidents against east and south Asian communities during the lockdown.

In response, certain organisations and support groups emerged. In the UK, many British Chinese are standing together against the use of pictures that display Asians wearing masks in coronavirus-related news articles; In the US, Stop AAPI Hate was established at the beginning of the pandemic to offer a hate crime report system for Asian American and Pacific Islander.

However, by far the public discussion on this matter is gradually dying down as fighting Coronavirus has become a long, trying war. People have been exasperated by the overwhelming information of increasing cases and the corresponding measures.

The good news is, such discriminatory titles like “Wuhan virus” and “China/Chinese virus” are no longer considered suitable in news coverage following scientists’ advice and the backlash from Asian communities.

But in December, another “name” took over and occupied the top headlines of mainstream media, where saw “UK coronavirus variant” constantly highlighted and emphasised.

Since then, a sense of “Britain-phobia” has been slightly but perceptibly bubbling up in Taiwan, thanks to all the day-to-day updates on the UK’s new strain of coronavirus disseminated by the local TV news channels.

Despite the leading position of rolling out vaccines, many Taiwanese are now fearful about the chaotic situation in the UK and alert to those travelling back from the place. A flood of sensational information circulating among the public appears to be inciting panic.

Inevitably, “Britain” has become a keyword that provokes tense reactions from people. I sensed the fear all the time when staying in my father’s motorcycle repair store after the 14-day quarantine.

“Is that your daughter? Haven’t seen her for a long time,” I overheard a patron asked my dad, and after hearing I have recently arrived home from “Britain”, he jumped back immediately, apparently startled.

Half-jokingly, he shouted, “Gosh, has she been in quarantine? I’m gonna stay away from you guys!”

The same response repeated over and over again until my dad decided to stop frightening people by mentioning “the UK”.

For most Taiwanese, or perhaps citizens in other countries, the mention of Britain is intuitively associated with a horrible, daunting coronavirus 2.0 that has sent the nation into peril.

Though historically, it is not the first time people have labelled a country or a particular ethnic group with an infectious disease simply due to the origin of it. But this time, with one pandemic shifting its major battlefield, I’m wondering whether there will be more unprecedented mutual empathy in terms of stereotypes and racism.

To be more precise, as for the unpleasant or traumatic experiences East Asians went through in the West during the pandemic period, will the racists in Britain who have called others “Corona” learn a lesson from being regarded as “New Corona Spreader”?

Of course, it is clear that the degree and impact of discrimination against Asian immigrants are far more severe than of the negative impression given to the British as a whole. Perhaps, the latter can’t even be defined as racism but merely prejudice or bigotry because racial inequality is referred to as a structural issue entrenched in society.

Nonetheless, I believe the ongoing pandemic is giving the whole world an insightful lesson. “COVID-19 is a public health crisis, not a racial matter. It does not discriminate along racial lines and nor should we,” the authors wrote in an academic report published last year.

I don’t know how those three British teenagers have been holding up throughout this difficult time. Neither do I want to hold a grudge against them in spite of the rudeness they showed me.

It would simply be hypocritical of me to take advantage of their misfortune and mock the British as “Corona 2.0” in return.

In my opinion, neither “Wuhan virus” nor “UK’s new virus” should be an acceptable expression as no label destined for disgrace is tolerable.

Whether it is “uncivilised bat-eaters” or “anti-mask lunatics”, at the current stage, it’s meaningless for any countries to point the finger of blame at each other because if ever there was a time the world needs the least hostility and most solidarity to embrace cultural disparities, it’s the present.

Freelance Writer & Journalist from Taiwan 用文字說故事,紀錄在英國的所見所聞

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