As the coronavirus outgrows SARS and begins to spread around the world, it is provoking something more threatening: xenophobia. The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has promoted an outburst of anti-Chinese sentiment — even in countries like Aotearoa New Zealand, where, so far, zero cases of the virus have been reported.
The government has implemented a ban on tourists travelling from Mainland China, in a bid to protect New Zealanders. Yet there is a greater danger to our well-being than the coronavirus, and that is xenophobia — or, more specifically, Sinophobia, anti-Chinese sentiment.
In places as diverse as Canada, Italy, and Vietnam, Chinese people — and, in some countries, Asian people generally — are being subjected to racist attacks. They have reported being sworn at, barred from shops and restaurants, and even spat at. In France, the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (‘I Am Not A Virus’) has emerged, with Chinese residents sharing their experiences of xenophobia.
Xenophobia is one of racism’s many faces. It is a fearful response to the unknown, and it feeds on ignorance, mistrust, and feelings of vulnerability. The racist attacks that many Chinese people living in Western countries are currently experiencing are not new.
Here in Aotearoa, Sinophobia has a long history. It is worth remembering that New Zealand is a multi-ethnic country, and we are widely regarded as having some of the best race relations in the world. Yet, throughout our history, Chinese New Zealanders especially have experienced high levels of discrimination.
In her book Old Asian, New Asian, K. Emma Ng details the ways in which government policy has been used to discriminate against Asian people in Aotearoa. She notes that between 1879 and the Second World War, there were 55 acts or amendments that specifically targeted Chinese. The Chinese Immigrants Act, for example, required Chinese immigrants entering New Zealand to pay a toll, and it limited the total number of people who were allowed to immigrate. The racism which motivated these policies — and which was, in turn, strengthened by them — continues to sustain anti-Asian sentiment into the 21st century. In 2010, a Human Rights Commission report revealed that Asians experience more discrimination than any other minority. Media reports of Asian people being verbally assaulted in public show that it persists, even today.
In France, similar connections have been made between media reports covering the coronavirus with headlines such as ‘Alerte Jaune’ (‘Yellow Alert’) and racist language that circulated in previous centuries. It is within this context that the surge in xenophobic rhetoric and race-based attacks needs to be understood. Indeed, this history helps to explain why a virus which has so far killed fewer than 500 people is provoking such panic, when, according to the World Health Organisation, influenza, or ‘the flu’, results in as many as 5 million cases of severe illnesses and kills as many as 650,000 people per year.
As well as being unloving, there is something deeply ironic about these racist assaults. Those who engage in such behaviour do so — ostensibly — from a concern for people’s health (that is, from a wish not to see the coronavirus spread). But what they fail to acknowledge is that it is their actions which are promoting ill-health: verbal assaults, such as racist insults, impact people’s psychological health and spiritual well-being. And in the long run, the resentment and division that racism provokes make all of us less safe.
Many of us are worried about the spread of the coronavirus. But it is in times of crisis that we most need to hold to the values which draw us together — loving values, such as care, responsibility, and trust. These are what make loving community possible, and — lest we forget — love is what makes life worth living. Racism is an assault on love.
How will we resist it? First, we must dismantle our own racism, critically interrogating xenophobic reactions when they arise. Second, we must challenge racism in others: when our friends, family, and acquaintances express anti-Chinese sentiments, we should do our best to challenge those, reminding them of the harm they cause. And third, if we witness an assault on another person, we should intervene, either directly (if it is safe enough to do so) or by getting help from others, and we should be ready to help the victim afterwards, if they want and need us to.
Crises test us because they threaten that which we value most. Insofar as our communities are loving, we can be proud of them. To the extent that our societies are not governed by fear and mistrust, they represent social achievements — especially in light of how prevalent racist ideas, language, and policies were in the past.
Our society is far from perfect. Still, we should protect what is loving in it, and work to make it more loving. With love, we will realise a better world for all of us.
Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. He is of Pākehā (New Zealand European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford in 2018. His book, Love Notes: for a Politics of Love, is published in New York by Lantern Books.