Fear in the age of coronavirus: Chinese no longer welcome

Passengers wearing face masks queue at the immigration counter upon arrival at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, on Jan 29, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong suspends travel from China. Schools in Europe uninvite exchange students. Restaurants in South Korea turn away Chinese customers.

As a deadly virus spreads beyond China, governments, businesses and educational institutions are struggling to find the right response. Safeguarding public health is a priority. How to do that without stigmatising the entire population of the country where the outbreak began is the challenge.

With the death toll reaching 170 and the roster of cases climbing above 7,700, worries are growing. Many global companies with operations in China have asked workers to stay home. Airlines are curtailing flights to the nation. Several countries have begun evacuating citizens from the most stricken zone around the city of Wuhan.

Though the vast majority of cases involve people from the central Chinese metropolis or nearby cities, or those who have been in contact with them, people of Asian appearance around the world say they've been subject to increased wariness since the disease began spreading. In some cases, baser emotions have come to the fore.

In South Korea, signs have begun popping up on restaurant windows saying "no Chinese allowed". A Korean casino catering to foreign visitors said it's no longer accepting groups of tourists from China. More than half a million people signed a petition, submitted to the government, calling for a ban on visitors from the nearby country of 1.4 billion.

A Hong Kong-based television channel aired a recording of a server at a restaurant in the Japanese city of Ito - on a peninsula south of Tokyo - shouting "China! Out!" at a tourist.

The Chinese woman who was the target of the outburst said she immediately left the restaurant, according to a host for Phoenix TV who shared the recording and a subsequent call to the unnamed eatery on her Weibo account.

A woman who answered the phone at the restaurant said it was refusing customers from China and South-east Asia because the owner was worried about the coronavirus, according to the recording. "If our owner contracts the virus and dies, whose responsibility is it then?" she said.

Health concerns aside, the reaction in South Korea and Japan to the virus reflects longstanding friction with China, as well as resentment over its growing influence in the region. That's even as an influx of visitors from China boosted neighbouring economies, including South Korea, where tourists surged by a quarter to more than 5.5 million through November from the previous year.

Signs of insensitivity aren't limited to Asia. French regional newspaper Courrier Picard sparked outrage with its headline "Yellow Alert" on a front-page story about the coronavirus. The paper apologised to readers who took to Twitter to condemn the allusion to "Yellow Peril", a xenophobic term referring to the people of East Asia that dates to the 19th century.

In Denmark, the Chinese Embassy called on the country's Jyllands-Posten newspaper to apologise for an editorial cartoon that depicts China's flag with virus symbols instead of stars on a red background.

"We feel angry and we feel sad because it's a kind of insult to our people and to our flag," Mr John Liu, Secretary General at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Denmark, said in a television interview.

The paper declined to apologise, citing Denmark's tradition of freedom of speech.

In France, the ministry of foreign affairs advised schools and universities to postpone student exchanges with China. At least one high school in Paris withdrew invitations to a group of students set to arrive this week.

In Canada, parents in communities north of Toronto started a petition urging schools to force students who recently returned from China to stay home for at least 17 days to avoid any chance of spreading the disease. The petition has garnered almost 10,000 signatures in the area, which has large ethnic-Chinese and Asian populations.

In response, York school board chair Juanita Nathan and education director Louise Sirisko have written to parents advising them that such requests run the risk of "demonstrating bias and racism", even when made in the name of safety.

"What we're really trying to get at is to (make sure) this situation is not giving rise to any inadvertent racism," Ms Nathan told CBC Radio's Metro Morning. "I think the parents may be overly cautious and very anxious."

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