Writing exclusively for HOPE not hate, Sarah Owen MP says it is time for leaders to take a stand against the rise in racism aimed at the Chinese and East Asian community since the start of the Coronavirus crisis.
It’s hard at this time of upheaval, when parents are worrying about their children’s education, businesses and the self-employed concerned about their finances and the vulnerable extra cautious about their health, to imagine that this will all eventually be in the past. Although none of us can know right now how Covid-19 pandemic will shape how we live in the future, we can do our utmost to ensure the legacy of this crisis is one of national unity not division.
When we look back we’ll be grateful for the people whose commitment to the simple act of carrying on their daily work became heroic – the delivery drivers, the childcare workers, the emergency services, the volunteers, the manufacturers, the scientists and every NHS worker. But whilst almost all of us were focused on coming together to slow the spread of the virus for society’s sake, some couldn’t resist the opportunity to indulge in cheap xenophobia. President Donald Trump labelled Covid-19, the ‘Chinese virus’ and played into the world view he has utilised so well, that of a threat from an ill-intentioned outsider; deflecting scrutiny to an outside entity and away from his flat-footed response to the pandemic. Eventually he was forced to try and undo some of the damage and speak out to say it was “very important that we totally protect” Asian Americans amid rising reports of verbal and physical attacks.
It’s not just Trump. Since Coronavirus, racism towards the Chinese community has spiked – not just in the streets but also in the mainstream. In France a local newspaper Le Courier Picard had to apologise after using the inflammatory headlines “Alerte jaune” (Yellow alert) and “Le péril jaune?” (Yellow peril?), alongside the image of a Chinese woman in a protective mask. Closer to home, the Evening Standard published a crass and insensitive cartoon to mark Chinese New Year when many were worried about the safety of their loved ones. Domestic populists such as Nigel Farage and far-right UKIP have also followed Trump’s leads and tried to confect a nationalist edge to the crisis.
There is no question this is having an effect. Worryingly, new polling by HOPE not hate found that 54% felt that ‘China is to blame for Coronavirus’, with large majorities of both Conservative (65%) and Brexit Party (69%) voters feeling that way. In everyday life there have been numerous reports of physical and verbal abuse of East Asian people, but sometimes it can be more subtle. Weeks before the first reported Corona case in the UK, I remember picking up a coffee from a busy Pret-A-Manger where every table was packed, except for the one with an East Asian woman sat on her own.
Chinese New Year is always a big event in the London calendar but this year celebrations were muted, with even many Chinese people saying they were going to stay away from Chinatown. Well before requirements for social distancing, Chinese restaurants suffered as people’s fears got the better of their appetites. Many appreciated the international solidarity of the #iwilleatwithyou campaign that started in Australia and spread around the world, spurred on by prominent food writers such as Jay Rayner, encouraging people to visit Chinese restaurants or buy takeaways and brush aside prejudices.
Sadly, shows of unity through social gatherings are no longer viable, and we need political leaders to take a proactive stance against casual, sometimes unthinking, prejudices as well as racist attacks to ensure they do not continue. Of course, in time we will need to look at the responses to the crisis by governments across the world, but we need to make it unequivocally clear that no ethnicity or nationality is responsible for, or is the source of, the virus. Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate, and this pandemic has caused pain, suffering and disruption across the globe – and the world is united in the fight against it.
The British Chinese and East Asian community are as worried for the wellbeing of ourselves, our families, our neighbours and our society as everyone else, but they have an additional feat – that of racist attacks, prejudice and social shunning. In this new world of social distancing, we need to find new ways of showing solidarity with each other but even a friendly smile can make a big difference. When we look around at the many people getting us through this difficult time – the NHS staff, the neighbours, the scientists – let us remember they will have come from all corners of the world – including China.
Sarah Owen is the Labour MP for Luton North, and long-standing support of HOPE not hate.
The HOPE not hate Charitable Trust has published polling which explores the public reaction to the Coronavirus crisis. You can read it here.