Since Coronavirus has grabbed the headlines, a more virulent strain of vile, anti-Chinese racism seems to have infected thousands around the world.

The Coronavirus outbreak dominates the media and raises justified concerns. That it originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan is not disputed. It is clear that China is now utilising its vast resources to contain the virus. However, there is scepticism that the attempt to depict Wuhan as a hero city may be crass propaganda. Even more troubling is the way in which way the death of Dr Li Wenliang, was handled – being announced, denied and then confirmed.

Dr Li, an ophthalmologist aged 33, attempted to warn about the virus which
he described as ‘similar to SARs’. Two days after warning his class of 150 medical students and others, he was arrested for ‘scaremongering’ and disrupting the ‘social order’. His death from Coronavirus on 7th February has focused protests in China.

It is felt that the authorities were in denial and attempted to brush warnings under the carpet for fear damaging China’s image. They allowed Wuhan’s ‘wet’ market to continue as well as a community banquet for tens of thousands of people. This has even been described as a ‘Chernobyl’ moment.

There is a modicum of comfort whilst the WHO decides whether or not to describe this as a pandemic, which would increase fears. It is worth considering past pandemics.

The Spanish flu of 1918-1919 caused up to 50 million deaths; Asian flu of 1957-8 and the Hong Kong flu of 1968 killed up to four million people each. In 2009 influenza A virus H1N1 killed only a fraction because, says the WHO, countries had developed comprehensive pandemic plans identifying public health measures to be taken to reduce illness and fatalities.

These are the measures now being put in place in China and worldwide. Amazing to see two new 1000-bed hospitals being built from scratch within two weeks, as well as quarantining a city of 11 million people, and then 16 other cities with a combined population of 50 million.

This may give reassurance but should also avoid the appalling xenophobia, hysteria and prejudice which continues to be an unedifying disgrace. This has been seen all over the world, with Chinese people and others of Asian appearance suffering violence, abuse and discrimination.

The World Health Organisation has urged against racism and stereotyping and the totally unjustified assumption that persons of Asian descent have the virus or carry it. There have been reports of assaults on Chinese people throughout Europe.

It is comforting to see some resistance and fight back against this prejudice. In France many people are showing solidarity by using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has spoken out against racist attitudes, deploring any attacks on the Chinese community.

The announcement that two patients were transferred to the specialist isolation unit at Newcastle’s RVI was the trigger for appalling racist abuse on social media, as well as ignorant negative conduct towards our local Chinese communities, students and businesses. Some parents are even telling their children which children not to play with at school.

The responsible attitude of the authorities in the north east has been very supportive. The Newcastle Hospitals Trust has announced it will tolerate absolutely no racist attitudes towards staff or patients whilst the Chief Constable has made resources available to provide support to our Chinese population and their various organisations. Dr Chris Day, Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University issued the strongest admonition to protect all Chinese students and staff during the crisis.

For these steps to be so necessary raises concerns about attitudes in our society. Are we as liberated and unprejudiced as we think we are? When Laurence Fox on Question Time denied that Meghan had been the subject of racism he was castigated as a ‘White, Privileged male’, as he admits he is. He protested that ‘We are the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe’. I would like to think that is a fair description but this latest xenophobia casts doubt on this.

The voluble critics who protested that there is widespread racism in the UK should be defending our Chinese community from this appalling prejudice.

Have we really learned any lessons about where racism and scapegoating can lead?

Barry Speker – Director NIBE

This article was originally published in Lifestyle April 2020