Shortly after the first Canadian case of the new coronavirus was announced in January, David Shao, a healthcare worker from Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba province, was taunted by colleagues to go home and stop “spreading the virus”. He was not sick; he was, however, the only Chinese person in his workplace.
Shao came to Canada in 1989 from Shanghai, China. He had never been to Wuhan. In fact, he had not been abroad for more than a year. Unfortunately, these comments were all too familiar to him. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, his colleagues also told him to “stay away” and “go home”.
Shao’s experiences throughout these two outbreaks are a reality for many Chinese people in Canada and beyond. As with SARS, the latest health epidemic is a reminder of the pervasive racism that deems Chinese populations to be inherently foreign, unhygienic and carriers of disease.
There have been countless social media posts labelling Chinese people “dirty” and “unclean”. A video of a Chinese woman eating bat soup allegedly in a Wuhan restaurant went viral and was accompanied by the claim that the outbreak started from such practices.
That the video was shot on the Pacific island of Palau, that the dish is a local delicacy (not a Chinese one), and that the outbreak did not start from a “bat soup” did not seem to matter to those eagerly wanting to believe that Chinese people get sick because they eat “revolting” food.
But disease and bad hygiene have less to do with what is eaten and more to do with the condition in which the food is prepared. And that is often determined by bad policies and lack of control rather than the food preferences of an ethnic group.
Chinese people have faced perceptions of being “unhygienic” and “dirty” long before SARS and the coronavirus came along. As early as the 19th century Opium Wars, the Chinese nation was referred to as the “sick man of East Asia”. This slur took a literal turn as Chinese migrants to North America came to be associated with poor hygiene and proneness to disease.
In the late 19th century, in Canada, it was not uncommon for white-owned restaurants to advertise that they did not employ Chinese workers. One such restaurant in the city of Victoria claimed, “the stomach of a person of refined tastes must revolt at the mere idea that his dinner has been cooked by a Chinaman,” shortly after replacing its Chinese cooks with Germans.
This perception of Chinese people as unhygienic was often drawn from bad living conditions in Chinatowns. In 1887, Vancouver’s Chinatown was described by reporters as “an eyesore to civilisation” and “pest-producing”. In 1890, during a cholera scare in Vancouver, the local press demanded that the government take action against that city’s Chinatown.
Despite the lack of evidence that cholera had arisen from the neighbourhood, the city council designated Chinatown an “official entity” in the medical health officer rounds and health committee reports, a designation that placed the neighbourhood under closer scrutiny for by-law infractions. Other designated entities included sewerage, scavenging sites, slaughterhouses and pig ranches – none of which were residential.
Chinese people were indeed living in poor conditions, but that was hardly their fault. Despite repeated petitions to improve infrastructure, the local authorities had neglected the immigrant area for years, seeing it as a low priority. As a result, Chinatown was filled with garbage and manure, as it lacked a sewage system, while its residents lived in overcrowded spaces lacking ventilation.
It is because of government neglect that these communities experienced higher rates of contagious diseases, including tuberculosis. Sewage was finally introduced in 1896 but overcrowding was not resolved. Instead, the city authorities often resorted to the demolition of houses in Chinatown on the basis that they were “dangerous to the health of the city”, leaving many Chinese workers homeless.
Today, conditions in Chinatowns across Canada have markedly improved, but the stigma has remained and the SARS and coronavirus outbreaks have just added more fuel to the fire.
The Lunar New Year is an especially busy time for Chinese businesses, but this year because of news of the epidemic, Chinese malls and restaurants across the country remained empty. The Federation of Chinese Canadians in the city of Markham, Ontario has reported that some Chinese businesses have suffered losses of between 20 percent and 90 percent as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, Toronto’s Chinatowns saw their revenues drop between 40 percent and 80 percent.
And while some of the most marginalised communities are suffering the financial consequences of the outbreak and public panic, the Canadian authorities are not only doing little to address anti-Chinese racism and popular misconceptions, but also in some places are undermining the capacity of local medical facilities to cope with a potential outbreak.
In Ontario, the conservative government of Doug Ford is in the process of consolidating 35 public health units into 10 as a cost-saving measure. These public health units provide infectious disease control and restaurant inspections – crucial measures to ensure sanitation standards are met. Consolidation could lead to layoffs that affect service delivery.
These cuts are happening alongside the government’s gutting of the Employment Standards Act – eliminating paid sick days and requiring workers to provide sick notes to take leave. Countless studies have shown that employees without paid sick leave were far more likely to continue working when symptomatic, risking transmission of the illness, instead of resting at home.
It is no surprise then that, in the face of the coronavirus epidemic, more than 175 health workers have signed an open letter demanding that the Ontario government restore paid sick day provisions.
In the end, what would help Canada prevent an outbreak is strengthening its health care sector and making sure its financial needs are addressed. What would definitely not prevent it, however, is leaving xenophobia and Sinophobia unchecked.
Our organisation, the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, continues to receive numerous emails, phone calls and social media messages blaming Chinese people for the virus. In a classic case of victim blaming, we even got accused in an email of inflaming societal divisions by publicly confronting racism.
It is clear to us that conjuring century-old stereotypes about Chinese people will not help Canadians stay safe from the coronavirus. It could, however, break communities.
Kate Shao and Kennes Lin also co-authored this article. Kate is a director at the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter and works as a human rights consultant. Kennes is the co-chair of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter and works as a Registered Social Worker in Toronto in immigrant mental health.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.