Racism and fear in viral times

Racism and fear in viral times

On Feb 24, a 23-year-old Singaporean student studying in the UK was attacked by two teenagers, the BBC reported. The selfies he took of his bloodied nose and swollen eyes went viral on social media, along with his description of the incident. The shocking images stirred widespread discussion among Asian communities online.

"I don't want your coronavirus in my country," one of the attackers shouted at him.

As I plan to embark on another academic journey in Europe this year, I am having some troubling thoughts. It had never occurred to me that my race could endanger my life.

As right-wing politicians acquire more clout in more countries, we are hearing more and more about Asians being discriminated against. Now the Covid-19 pandemic has become a scalpel that scratches away at mutual trust and respect between people of different races. Bias toward Asians, especially anyone who looks Chinese, is ugly and open.

Some of my Taiwanese friends studying in Europe have posted accounts of racist incidents they encountered. They get yelled at, pointed at by random people on the street, and judged just because they are wearing protective masks.

"Seeing us, a group of Asian people, in the restaurant, some people just left directly," says a Taiwanese friend who studies in Turkey. It has almost become a norm to be singled out for their race, and they are getting used to it.

Recently, a Dutch secondary school in Belgium posted a photo of a group of students dressed in traditional Chinese costumes. They were holding a poster that said "Corona Time", and one girl was making a slant-eyed gesture. The campus director was aghast. "We want to apologise explicitly because we had not correctly estimated the consequences," he wrote.

I could not help but wonder what that initial "estimation" was? Just an innocent joke that wouldn't hurt anyone's feelings? When is the world going to learn? How many times will we keep repeating the same mistakes?

As Covid-19 spreads worldwide, many people are generalising Asians as they vent their collective fear. While anxiety and panic are understandable, mocking and assaulting Asian people is not going to accelerate the development of a treatment. The virus is being used as an excuse to openly discriminate against Asians, positioning us at the bottom of the victim totem pole.

Unfortunately, even some Asians are catching the discrimination bug. Paulo Dalpian, a friend of mine who teaches at a Bangkok university with many students from outside Thailand said some of his Chinese-looking students made a point of telling their classmates they didn't travel to China during the semester break. He believes it was a gesture to seek understanding and acceptance from the peers.

"It is not overt racism as no one directly asked whether they had been to China. But it is a result of structural racism, like an expectation that you should explain yourself if you are Chinese," he told me.

People tend to be intimidated by things they don't understand. That's why we were afraid of feminism, homosexuality, and HIV in the beginning; some people still are. Today, Covid-19 is a new trigger, and Asians happen to be the target.

Living in countries that supposedly cherish the virtues of democracy, freedom and diversity, some people are spewing slurs and hatred toward Asians without any basis in fact. Seriously, how shameful is that?

It starts with the supposed leader of the free world. Photos of typed notes for a recent speech by US President Donald Trump showed "Corona" crossed out and "Chinese" written in the president's handwriting. What an example to set for the world.

I'm not pleading for any special treatment for Asians as the virus is something that challenges all humanity equally. The casualties, as well as the panic the virus has caused to the public, are tragic. But what is even more unfortunate is the hatred and misunderstanding that people around the world are directing at each other. The outbreak will fade in time, but the mental wounds left by discrimination will remain.

In the end, ignorance could lead to even more catastrophic consequences to humanity than the virus does. Instead of giving in to blind fear, as well as bias against certain races, thus jeopardising the possibility of cooperation between peoples, we should focus more on fighting the pandemic itself, which is supposed to be our collective goal.

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