Coronavirus, racism and economic troubles


There has now been over 1,000 deaths in China alone as result of the coronavirus. The news reports show deserted streets in Wuhan and other areas of China as people are forced to stay indoors, hastily-built hospitals and people being forced off the streets and into protective areas.

Citizens of other countries, including Canadians, are now being evacuated from China, travellers on some cruise ships are being held in quarantine as well those who have been evacuated in different parts of the world.

We have been here before, well somewhat. SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome – nearly 20 years. This mysterious illness was scary. Toronto was very much in the path, as it turned out. It is fair to say that thanks to the healthcare professionals who came together, a problem that could have been worse was arrested.

Now bear in mind that much of SARS, 2003, happened with 9/11 still relatively fresh in our minds. And for those who were paying attention, the outcome of the United Nations sponsored World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa was also fresh. Activists were involved in trying to push for recognition and policy development and adoption that would challenge racism.  But then came SARS. That was one problem for which no one was apparently prepared.

In a joint presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) and the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic (CSALC) earlier this month, the presenters made an urgent appeal to members to help stop the anti-Asian racism before it took hold as it did during the SARS crisis.

Avy Go, the Clinic’s director told the committee that during the SARS crisis they were contacted by tenants who faced eviction because they were Chinese, restaurants were laying off workers because of business downturn, and lots of terminated workers of Chinese descent.

“At the time, staff of the Immigration and Refugee Board insisted on wearing face masks during hearings concerning only refugee claimants of Chinese descent even though these claimants had already been in Canada for a number of years,” Go added.

The onset of the coronavirus is a reminder that North Americans in particular tend to have a knee-jerk reaction that could brand an entire race. We have seen it also with Islamophobia and, to some extent, with Ebola.

Already there have been reports of a downturn in Chinese restaurant attendance in the Toronto. Hopefully this is being monitored. And, to be fair, our leaders have been speaking out to try to nip this in the bud.

The most urgent aspect of this crisis of course is containment until a vaccine can be developed. Regrettably, quarantines are perhaps most efficient to this point, although it may be inconvenient. So far, however, those who have been quarantined appear to be dealing with it calmly.

There is however one worrisome angle of this crisis bears acknowledging. When crises like these erupt one wonders at the capacity for developing countries to despond. Clearly, most do not have the resources for airlifts in the same way the wealthy countries do. Of course, they generally do not have as many of their citizens located at ground-zero.

The larger impact may very well be to trade and therefore to the economies of these smaller countries. Right now, we hear more about the effects that the outbreak has had so far on the automotive industry. Parts which are manufactured in China have been held up which will no doubt force layoffs among manufacturers. From the perspective of the small developing country which may have developed a level of export in a perishable good, or imports crucial to its well-being, the impact could be substantial.

But there is also another potential outcome – China’s influence and presence in many developing countries have significantly increased over the past few years. There have been suggestions that gap-bridging between the Chinese workers who come in to build roads and other infrastructure do not mix very well with the native population. This outbreak hopefully will not contribute to that division.