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Coronavirus (Brit) 5

8 people on the coronavirus-related racism they’ve faced in the UK

As the world continues to panic about the epidemic, many people are expressing their fear through discrimination

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

At the time of writing, there are just nine confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, and no fatalities. In fact, although there have been over 2,000 deaths worldwide – primarily in China – there have been more than 75,000 cases of the illness, meaning approximately just two per cent of all diagnoses are fatal.

I mention this not to negate the seriousness of the epidemic, or suggest that it’s not tragic that 2,000 people have lost their lives, but to dilute some of the panic spread by the media. Panic that is now metamorphosing into racism.

According to a poll released last week (February 14), 14 per cent of people in the UK would avoid contact with those of Chinese origin or appearance. This statistic is perhaps most glaringly obvious in London’s Chinatown, where businesses have seen a 20 per cent drop in trade since the outbreak hit the UK at the end of January. 

But it’s not just businesses suffering the discrimination associated with coronavirus. On Sunday (February 16), a 24-year-old man from Thailand was violently assaulted by two teenagers as he was travelling home to west London. Pawat Silawattakun was left with a broken nose after the attack. “Statistically, you’re more likely to find an Asian doctor that will cure you than to find an Asian guy who will infect you with coronavirus,” he told The Observer, “but this xenophobia is being taken out on all east Asians.”

Though Silawattakun’s case is considered the first ‘violent hate crime’ associated with the epidemic, countless Asian people in the UK have been victims of coronavirus-related racism. Here, we speak to six Londoners about their experiences.

ASHLEY, 30

“There has been an undercurrent of racism since the coronavirus outbreak. Just last week, my friend’s boss passed hand sanitiser to everyone in their office before advising his employees to be careful on the tube and to move away from Chinese people. My friend felt incapacitated as (the company) has no HR, and the boss is the founding partner of the company so can say whatever he wants. 

Personally, I’ve had people – mainly who are older – move away from me on public transport, and I’ve found myself having to hold in my coughs and sneezes in public so I don’t cause offense or alarm anyone. But it’s hard to not have a cold in February! I feel like I’ve had to change the way I dress so I don’t lean into the ‘Asian’ look, and have found myself trying to act more British to reassure the public – which is ridiculous! There’s also been very casual and light comments from colleagues about coronavirus aimed at me – when I cough they make comments which I have to laugh off otherwise I’m the one taking it too seriously. People can be so ignorant and unfeeling.

I have family over in Hong Kong – people don’t think about that. They think about themselves and how it’s affecting them here. Not one person has asked if I have anyone from Hong Kong that could be sensitive (to contracting coronavirus). I fear more for my parents in suburban cities (than myself); I’d hate for them to receive further racism.”

“When I cough (my colleagues) make comments which I have to laugh off otherwise I’m the one taking it too seriously” – Ashley

RAYMOND, 23

“The closest encounter that probably borderlines racism for me took place on the London Underground, where the moment I sat down, two of the guys sitting in the same row left for the next coach, and a third stood up and then got off at the next stop. I felt alienated being sat in an empty row on a relatively busy train, and there was pretty much nothing I could do about it. The experience made me hesitate to wear a face mask as they seem to raise even more eyebrows in public spaces.”

KUAN-YIN, 23

“At the moment, I even feel guilty coughing somewhere because coronavirus has strained everyone’s nerves. The huge difference between Chinese and western media reports has led to information asymmetry, and people in different countries have irreparable prejudices. Chinese and Asian people (in the UK) are paying special attention to their words and deeds for fear of being looked at differently. The situation in Britain is not even that serious, but British people think anyone who wears a mask is sick. Some of my friends wore masks on public transport and were deliberately avoided by other passengers – the internet forums in China warn that wearing a mask is more dangerous than not wearing one because you’re at risk of being beaten up if you have one. The coronavirus outbreak has further exacerbated the division of society and culture.”

LILY, 25

“Two weeks ago, some random girls commented on one of my Instagram posts, writing ‘#coronavirus’. I wasn’t pissed off, but was quite disappointed. I made a public post directly calling out the people who’d been commenting and tagged a lot of newspapers in it. Asians have been silent for too long, and people are taking advantage of it – these people truly don’t have a life so they find pleasure from bullying people online. I don’t think that (the coronavirus epidemic) should affect any of our behaviours in public because it will negatively impact society if Asians start to feel self-conscious (going about their everyday activities for fear of being racially abused).”

RITA, 27

“People have started to see us differently, giving us funny looks when we wear face masks in public, which makes me feel weird and uncomfortable. Wearing face masks is a way of showing respect and care for yourself and for others – whether it’s about coronavirus or not, we should feel free to wear them anytime we want. In this difficult situation, I think all races should be united together to fight (coronavirus).”

DAVID, 27

“I was at a work meeting on Saturday night and I ordered a taxi. It shows up and I check that it’s my car, which it is, so I proceed to open the door, at which point I realise it’s locked. I repeatedly try to open the door – usually when this happens, the driver would just unlock the door, but he’s refusing to, which seems a little weird. He rolls down his window then looks me up and down and asks me where I’m from. It was so weird because obviously I wasn’t anticipating a racist dynamic, so I thought that he was genuinely curious. Kind of confused, I say, ‘oh I’m from Hong Kong’, and then he said to me – word for word – ‘I think you’re going to need a different car, this ride is cancelled’. It happened so fast and his response was so surprising that I really didn’t see it coming – I was just kind of speechless. Then he drove off and cancelled the journey.

I complained (to the cab company) and posted on social media about it, which led to the company reaching out to me. I got an email from them on Monday (February 17) with the compensation that they were thinking of rewarding me, and the amount was… £3. I’d rather not have received anything! They said they were reviewing the incident and that if it was considered ‘severe’, they would fire the driver – but I responded saying I don’t think that’s the solution. This is an isolated incident, but not an isolated dynamic or reason; this is obviously coronavirus-related, so I’m not the only person this will have happened to. For that reason, firing a single driver won’t make any difference – I’d also feel quite guilty about him losing his job because I don’t know who he’s supporting. I did tell the taxi company that they should consider having a company-wide conversation about coronovirus-related discrimination, telling drivers not to discriminate against Asian customers. 

Now in every single car I take, I make sure I don’t cough because I don’t want to trigger anyone who thinks I have coronavirus. I think it’s really unfair. I also think it’s a byproduct of the mania that’s stemmed from the media, in relation to what people deem as ‘lethal’ Asian-related (illnesses) – obviously coronavirus does come from Asia, but it doesn’t mean that every Asian person has it. It’s very misinformed, misguided, and xenophobic.”

“(Discrimination) is a byproduct of the mania that’s stemmed from the media. Obviously coronavirus does come from Asia, but it doesn’t mean that every Asian person has it” – David

VIVIAN, 25

“On the underground the other day, I was playing with someone else’s dog. The owner was being nice to me but then asked where I come from, and when I said China she suddenly started shouting at me, saying: ‘Why do you eat animals?’ Then she got off at the next stop. I was furious!”

XIN, 29

“I ordered a taxi from a ride-sharing app last Saturday to meet my friends and the driver refused to take me once he saw me put a face mask on. When I tried to ask him why, he told me to leave his car – just by waving his hand – but didn’t cancel the trip meaning I was still charged. I had to go through a long argument with the company to get the money back, but they aren’t being supportive at all. I’ve had to say to them many times that I don’t accept their response of: ‘Necessary steps will be taken but we can’t reveal how we do this.’ Many of my friends have experienced the same thing.

What’s the logic behind being OK with an Asian person taking a taxi, but not being OK when they put on a face mask? Wearing a face mask protects not only the passenger themselves, but also the driver – it’s actually a lot safer and doesn’t mean we’re sick. In east Asia, a lot of girls wear face masks if they didn’t put make-up on that day, so (the mask) is a sign that says: ‘Don’t talk to me.’ It’s also spring, so lots of people wear face masks because of hayfever. After the incident, I reported the case to the company and shared the story on social media; I’m still trying to get them to do something even though they tried to close the conversation with me so many times.”

Most names have been changed and some answers have been edited and condensed