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.


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6 thoughts on “Coronavirus: no place for racism, xenophobia

  1. john chen says:

    I want to report to you a racist incident that happened today to me at the supermarket.

    An aussie couple aged in their 40’s was behind me and said out loud.

    “Funny how these people are wearing masks when they are the one bringing it over here”

    I’m an Australian for over 25 years, born in Taiwan and have not experienced this type of public random racism for over a decade.

    Im 39yr old male and in very good shape, so they did not feel intimidated to say this to me, imagine it would be far worst for the elderly and female.

    It is now a social emergency as well as medical emergency.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Shame on the surgeon for shaming the patient. That was literally a breach of patient confidentiality. If they read her comments they will recognise themselves. If someone is having surgery they are probably scared and not on their best behaviour. Being on my high horse about that is a poor show. If a virus originated in the US and I was working in China I would reassure the patient that I had not left China and move on. Sheesh. Thankfully, since this nonsense was posted, we have seen how Chinese treat Chinese.

  3. Julie Leask says:

    Jane, thank you for calling this out. Societal perceptions of risk often don’t travel along the lines of actual risk – a finding from an unrelated study we published in MJA

    We need to reduce the impact of xenophobia that often comes with infectious disease risk perceptions by speaking out. Our leaders may speak against it but action is the loudest form of communication. They should also adopt policies and actions (e.g., travel bans and managing evacuees) that are about prevention, not playing up to prejudicial community perceptions. Journalists, news editors and producers should also think carefully about the social impacts of the way they report this evolving story.

    Readers of MJA are well placed to educate themselves, their patients and help them put into place actions that are reasonable and evidence-informed. It’s also a broader chance to educate people about infectious disease prevention for example, influenza, and the importance of vaccination each year.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Is it racist to call the flu pandemic in 1918 Spanish flu? Lets focus on the epidemic and containing it.

  5. Philip Morris says:

    I am proud of the way Australians I come in contact with (not those on social media) have responded to this situation. No racism, just an appreciation of the practicalities of dealing with an epidemic and the need for quarantine in appropriate cases and caution overall. I note now that the Commonwealth government is using Australian mainland quarantine facilities as well as Christmas Island. Journalist Jane McCredie’s insinuation that Australians are racially motivated on this topic is both untrue and unnecessary and unhelpful for dealing with this public health challenge.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Apparently a lot of people are unable to tell the difference between fear and racism. It’s not racist to point out that the virus originated in China and that, since it’s a phenotypically uniform country, a person of Chinese (or “Asian”) appearance is far more likely to be infected than any other recognisable group. Are ethnically Chinese Australians who have never travelled outside Australia, yet also fear Chinese travellers returning from Wuhan, racist or just fearful? Obviously it’s fear. It may be *misplaced* fear, but if you insist on using the wrong word you are going to also misdiagnose the real issue – as well as turning people off who are in genuine need of good information. Lose the chip on your shoulder and stop seeing racists where there aren’t any.

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