Coronavirus sparks a rising tide of xenophobia worldwide

Researchers studying coronavirus-related attacks urge universities in Europe, North America and Australia to do more to protect Asian students

March 23, 2020
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Targeted ‘vast misconceptions’ about Covid-19 have spurred discrimination against ‘Asian-looking people’

Jonathan Mok, a UCL law student originally from Singapore, was walking in London recently when he heard someone shout: “Coronavirus!” He was then attacked so brutally that he may require facial surgery. The British police are now pursuing another case in which attackers allegedly tore the clothes off a University of Glasgow PhD student from China.

As the new coronavirus spreads around the world, so do cases of xenophobia against students of Asian descent. In the Netherlands, some dormitories have been befouled with hate speech, and a Dutch student of Chinese descent has suffered knife wounds. From Australia to the US, Asian students have faced slurs, evictions and rejections from medical clinics and classes.

Cary Wu, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at Canada’s University of York, is leading new research on whether rising “anti-Asian-looking” sentiment is a result of the coronavirus outbreak specifically or rather just part of a wider strand of xenophobia in Western society.

He uses the term “anti-Asian-looking” because attack victims may not be from areas where Covid-19 originated. “There are many Asian-looking people who are native-born Canadians. And many are immigrants who are from other parts of the world,” he said. “The rise of attacks against ‘Asian-looking people’ is deeply rooted in the historical discrimination against Chinese and Asians in Western cultures and societies.”

Dr Wu told Times Higher Education that one of his PhD students had been pushed, yelled at and called “coronavirus” on campus, and had experienced similar harassment on the streets of Toronto, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. “As a result of these incidents, she has been having difficulties focusing on coursework and research,” he said.

“Since these attacks against Asian students are so common, I cannot say that Western universities are doing enough to protect Asian students,” Dr Wu said. “As public institutions, universities can do much more. During this difficult time, it becomes much more important for universities to publicly denounce xenophobia.”

Dr Wu said universities needed to “condemn and penalise” any discriminatory behaviours. Longer term, they should “build upon scientific knowledge and design effective measures” to fight xenophobia. These could include promoting diversity among students and staff alike; creating inclusive environments and encouraging interracial interactions; and building up programmes that help students to cope with the psychological effects of racial attacks.

Jun Wen, a lecturer at Edith Cowan University in Australia, is also conducting research on coronavirus-related discrimination, with an initial paper published in February in the journal Anatolia.

He told THE that the rapid spread of the coronavirus from China to the world “has naturally led to fear and panic in every society”, which can cause “irrational and even illegal behaviours”. Specifically, he said, “vast misconceptions and misreporting” in the media – for example, headlines saying “China kids stay home” or “Chinese virus pandemonium” – have spurred discrimination.

“We have a responsibility as academics to use our expertise to highlight inaccurate media messaging,” Dr Wen said. “If these misperceptions aren’t addressed, we may start seeing mental health issues related to social isolation, racial discrimination and unequal treatment.”

“Asian students make up a considerable proportion of many university populations and should be welcomed and included like anyone else,” he added.

Dr Wen suggested including diversity issues in the curriculum and opening lines of communication between students, faculty and administrations – efforts that would require cooperation from multiple stakeholders.

Even the University of California, Berkeley, one of the world’s most liberal-minded and diverse campuses, has not been immune to administrative bumbling over the coronavirus outbreak.

Its health service was roundly criticised when it said in a public message that xenophobia was a “normal” response to the epidemic. About half of Berkeley’s student body is Asian, including both Asian Americans and international students.

The Instagram post was quickly deleted, and the university administration followed up with a strongly worded message denouncing discrimination. “We also should stand firm in rejecting all forms of anti-Asian sentiment and other xenophobia in the guise of fear of Covid-19,” it said.

Winston Tseng, a Berkeley researcher in Asian American studies and public health, told THE that “there has been xenophobia pertaining to the coronavirus pandemic on Cal campus, but it is no more than on other campuses in the US”.

“Here at Cal campus, we have many Asian American committees, programmes and student associations − and some of them have been leading the way to support efforts to be respectful and to support the campus community,” he said.

The campus community, he suggested, needed to “stand up to protest and not be afraid to speak up and be part of this global movement to fight against...bigotry, xenophobia, Islamophobia and more”.

“We are in this together,” Dr Tseng said. “Do not fear differences, but get to learn more about one another, and do not be afraid of strangers. Be open-minded to the change around us and the global world we live in.”


Print headline: Coronavirus sparks a rising tide of xenophobia in West

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Reader's comments (2)

Thanks so much for this article, Joyce. Sadly, what you say describes exactly what I have heard from many of my relatives, neighbours and even friends who have jumped on the anti-Asian bandwagon, and it is so distressing to hear them try to defend their bigotry. I'd be inclined to say that politicians like Trump are creating this rhetoric through his 'Chinese virus' slurs, but as you point out these attitudes are definitely inherent in many people and the virus has simply exacerbated these views. It's a sad indictment on twenty-first century society: for all our apparent knowledge, not to mention our awareness of history, we should know better, but we don't.
Thanks, Siobhan, for reading and sympathising. I hope you are staying safe during these times. Joyce.


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