Growing wave of racism and hate crimes as coronavirus spreads

Worldwide, Asians and migrant workers have become targets of rising xenophobia

A sign with the words "Fear causes racism" on a boarded-up business in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighbourhood. Experts have pointed out that throughout history, immigrants and minority communities have been blamed for and attacked during disease outbre
A sign with the words "Fear causes racism" on a boarded-up business in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighbourhood. Experts have pointed out that throughout history, immigrants and minority communities have been blamed for and attacked during disease outbreaks. PHOTO: REUTERS

Racist and xenophobic incidents have followed the spread of Covid-19 around the world, many of them centred on the stereotypes that immigrants have poor personal hygiene and strange eating habits.

Those targeted have been from minority communities, from ethnic Asians in Western countries and elsewhere to migrant workers in Asian countries.

Supermarkets in Australia have reportedly turned away Asian customers, while in New Zealand, a Chinese parent received an e-mail which said that "our Kiwi kids don't want to be in the same class with your disgusting virus spreaders".

Ethnic Asians have been assaulted, called dirty and had other racial slurs hurled at them on the streets of Britain, while Chinese, Japanese and Korean stores and businesses have been vandalised elsewhere in Europe.

In Kuwait, an actress called for migrant workers to be deported to save hospital beds for local coronavirus patients, while a Bahraini man was filmed complaining that migrant workers "don't know how to use toilets properly" in a video that went viral.

Singaporeans have not been spared either. In Melbourne, a Singaporean student and her Malaysian friend were punched and kicked as their assailants shouted "coronavirus" and told them to "go back to China". In London, a Singaporean law student was punched in the face by a group of attackers and told "I don't want your coronavirus in my country".

Experts are not surprised, pointing out that throughout history, immigrants and minority communities have been blamed for and attacked during disease outbreaks.

Jews were accused of poisoning wells and were massacred during the Black Death in Europe in the 1300s, while Irish Catholic immigrants were blamed for a cholera outbreak in New York in 1832.

"The idea that Asians are dirty, eat strange foods and are vectors of disease has existed for as long as Asians have been in the US, and these ideas continue to exist today," Korean-American writer Marie Lee Myung-ok, a writer in residence at Columbia University's Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, wrote in an essay published on the Salon website.

She detailed how rumours that the Chinese were disease vectors began as the continued influx of immigration began to threaten job prospects for white labourers in the United States, leading to a baseless quarantine of San Francisco's Chinatown during an outbreak of smallpox in 1876.

English professor Josephine Park, who directs the University of Pennsylvania's Asian American studies programme, told The Straits Times: "Xenophobia and racism have a long history in this country, and there has often been a connection between disease and racial outsiders. The notion of immigrant communities fostering disease is a familiar racist attitude."

The bigoted idea that immigrants are dirty has its roots in history, said environmental historian Carl Zimring, who traced the evolution of the racial stereotype in America in his book titled Clean And White.

"In industrialised societies, many necessary jobs such as handling garbage, human waste and laundry are unpleasant. Maintaining the public health of modern societies requires sanitary infrastructures that include the labour of sanitation workers, janitors, laundry workers and related occupations," Dr Zimring, a professor at the Pratt Institute in New York City, told The Straits Times.

"This 'dirty work' tends to be done by people marginalised by economic need, race or ethnicity. In the United States, such work has been done by African Americans and immigrants, and the stigma of 'dirty work' extends fears of the dirt the workers handle with the workers themselves," he said.

"So pervasive was the association between non-white features and filth that it became a dominant trope in soap and cleanser advertisements. Several manufacturers boasted of cleansers so effective that they made black features appear white."


For Asian-Americans, a group in the cross hairs now amid the spike in Covid-19 cases, the racism they face is worsened by the US' often tense relations with China and racist statements made by political leaders.

US President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as the "Chinese virus", saying it was a nod to its origins in Wuhan, China, despite protests from civil rights activists that doing so could incite racism against Chinese Americans.

Public health officials in the Trump administration have also called the virus the "Kung Flu", while Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas told reporters last month that "China is to blame because of the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that".

Prof Park said: "Trump has been very clear in linking the US experience of this pandemic to its competition with China, and though he has stepped back from calling it a 'Chinese virus', members of his administration and party have taken on this charge. Political efforts to diminish China are growing."

From a public health perspective, there are other issues with calling Covid-19 a Chinese virus.

It can suggest that ethnic Chinese are the sole carriers of the disease. On social media last month, rumours circulated that black people were immune to the virus, leading British actor Idris Elba to condemn the rumours in a video where he spoke about his own experience of testing positive for the coronavirus.

Dr Zimring said: "Labelling the coronavirus as 'Kung Flu' or the 'Wuhan Flu' as the Trump admi-nistration has done ignores the role highly mobile wealthy indi-viduals play in transmitting diseases from city to city, and country to country." Dr Zimring was referring to a New York Times analysis that most of New York City's initial coronavirus cases were brought in by travellers from Europe, not China.

"Attacking workers in hospitals, stores, restaurants and streets on racial or citizenship grounds does nothing to prevent the spread of disease and feeds into the corrosive weakening of society that the 19th-century stereotypes of race and waste fed upon," he added.

Instead, Dr Zimring called for a meaningful public health response that ensures the people handling waste have safe working conditions and good healthcare.

He said: "The racism at work today serves to make cities and countries more, not less, lethal to all."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2020, with the headline Growing wave of racism and hate crimes as coronavirus spreads. Subscribe