Editorial: Coronavirus is No Excuse for Xenophobia

A sign which says the shop is not accepting Chinese customers because of the corona virus is seen on the front door of a nail bar in the island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam, January 27, 2020. Image: Associated Press.

Mistreatment of Chinese people is being openly advocated under the guise of the coronavirus. We should all learn from history that exploiting public panic for racial discrimination is a dangerous path.

In recent days, our news agency has been running satirical polls asking whether race-based segregation policies from the history’s darkest times should be used against the Chinese – and people kept voting yes. 

In three separate polls, we asked our readers whether Thailand should shut down our borders to Chinese nationals, regardless of their origins or health conditions; whether the Chinese should be shunned from facilities like restaurants and shops, and whether Chinese should be made to wear visual identifications while in public places. 

The first question drew an overwhelming 83 percent for a Yes. The Yes option was also a majority – 53 percent – for the second question. Although the last question, which should have been instantly recognized by everyone as a racial measure from 1930s Germany, only attracted a Yes response of 36 percent, we were nevertheless appalled that the number wasn’t closer to zero. 

“Make them wear bat badges,” user Calvin Collins commented. 

“IDENTIFY THEM,” says Jamie Saunders.

To be sure, these are informal online surveys with a very small sample of respondents (we also hope some of the Yes were made in jest). And although many readers rightly opposed the blatantly racist proposals in the questionnaires, the reality might be more grim than what our unscientific polls suggested. 

An increasingly radical rhetoric on social media is calling for Chinese to be banned from Thailand, urging businesses to deny services to Chinese, and even blaming the Chinese themselves for this apparent act of karma – fueled by mainstream media’s disinformation that placed unfounded blame on Chinese eating habits.

And it’s not just talk on social media either. Some restaurants and hotels in tourist areas have already rolled out bans on Chinese travelers in order to placate other concerned guests in the same facilities. Police have said they have no legal power to stop this practice. 

One can only imagine with horror what the response will be if we continued our social experiment by posing questions like whether Chinese nationals overseas should be immediately rounded up and sent to quarantine. 

Thailand is certainly not alone in this climate of rising xenophobia driven by the coronavirus outbreak. Similar racist sentiments against the Chinese are reported even in countries usually associated with the notion of “civilized societies.”

In Canada, a white man was filmed telling a Chinese-Canadian woman “You dropped your coronavirus” at a mall. 

Chinese tourists were reportedly spat at in Italy’s Venice. A family in Turin was accused of carrying the virus. Residents in Milan used social media to call for children to be kept away from Chinese classmates.

Restaurants in South Korea and Japan have refused to accept Chinese customers, while an Australian newspaper ran a headline that read, “China kids stay home.”

University of California, Berkeley’s health services said “fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings” is a “normal” reaction to the epidemic. 

Such examples can go on for paragraphs after paragraphs. 

Ironically, this surge of xenophobia also coincides with a series of activities planned worldwide – including here in Bangkok – to commemorate the UN Holocaust Remembrance Day, which seeks to warn us each year the dangers of treating a whole group of people as scapegoats for our plights.

The painful history of the Holocaust is more important than ever in a world where fanning panic and racial hatred is a Facebook post away, thanks to the advent of social media and its resulting echo chamber. 

Suspicions of Chinese authorities and criticism of their botched responses to the coronavirus crisis are entirely understandable and up for debate, but to treat an entire race as a virus-ridden enemy is certainly not humanity’s good way forward.