CRISIS situations can bring out the best in people.
We’ve seen that in abundance this catastrophic bushfire season, as firefighters risk their lives and health day after day and local communities pull together to support each other.
Sadly, though, a crisis can also bring out the worst in some.
The current coronavirus outbreak has seen the spread of, not just infectious disease, but also a poisonous and insidious racism directed against people thought to be of Chinese appearance.
Social media platforms are filled with stories from Asian Australians who have been targeted on public transport and on the street. Some parents even write of their children being bullied in the playground at school.
ABC journalist Iris Zhao was moving her supermarket trolley out of the way of another customer when she heard the woman mutter “Asians … stay home … stop spreading the virus”.
Sydneysider Andy Miao told The New York Times he had heard degrading jokes about Chinese people in the wake of the virus outbreak and received disapproving stares from fellow passengers on his commute to work.
“It makes people like me who are very, very Australian feel like outsiders,” he said. “It’s definitely invoking a lot of past racial stereotypes.”
Gold Coast surgeon Dr Rhea Liang tweeted that a patient had “joked”, in front of her team, about not wanting to shake her hand because of coronavirus.
“I have not left Australia. This is not sensible public health precautions. This is #racism,” Dr Liang wrote.
The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine was moved last week to issue a statement calling for unity and respect after reports of an increase in racist abuse directed at emergency department staff and patients.
“This is a time when we need to be pulling together as a multi-cultural, inclusive and diverse community to support each other and people affected by the outbreak; and not use an event like this to promote division and xenophobia,” the statement said.
Marginalising groups within the community could make them afraid to seek help, which had the potential to make the public health situation worse, the statement went on.
It also raised concerns about sensationalist reporting on some media platforms.
While it may not be surprising to see the worst aspects of human behaviour displayed on social media, it’s sad to see some mainstream media outlets doing their bit to promote racial stereotyping.
French regional daily, the Courrier Picard, was forced to apologise after it published a front page story about the virus screaming ALERTE JAUNE (yellow alert) accompanied by an editorial headed Le peril jaune? (yellow peril?).
Melbourne’s Herald Sun has apparently not apologised for its pathetic front page pun “Chinese virus pandamonium”, though the tagline does appear to have been removed from the publication’s website following widespread criticism.
And then there’s the interview with the Australian Medical Association president Dr Tony Bartone on Nine’s Today show where host Karl Stefanovic appears to liken Australian evacuees from Wuhan to … well, here’s the quote:
“It’s like nuclear waste. I mean, what are you going to do with it? I mean where – what are you going to do with these people at this point?”
The Today interview was about the Australian Government’s decision to send evacuees to Christmas Island, a response that has puzzled many health experts.
The repurposed detention centre on the remote island is far from luxurious and certainly does not have the facilities to deal with large numbers of seriously ill people – although, fortunately, there is no sign yet of that eventuating.
As Dr Bartone said, there are many mainland facilities that could have provided safe quarantine in a more humane way.
If the disease had first appeared in the nightclubs of Bali, would the young Australians who had gone there to party have been shipped to Christmas Island?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d like to.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.