TORONTO -- Members of the Chinese-Canadian community are speaking out against racist and sinophobic backlash against East Asian people over widespread fear of the coronavirus – known as 2019-nCoV – reminiscent of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

SARS killed more than 700 people worldwide in five months -including 44 in the Toronto area. Many of the affected were healthcare workers who were on the frontline of patient care, dealing with an outbreak authorities were slow to pick up on. Two nurses and a doctor were among the Canadians who died.

“While we learned from SARS there is no correlation between having SARS and being Chinese, there was a lot of racial profiling and racism during that time,” clinic director of the Chinese and SouthEast Asian Legal Clinic Avvy Go said on CTV’s Your Morning Wednesday. 

Members of the Chinese-Canadian and Southeast Asian-Canadian communities suffered job losses, threats of eviction and ostracization of their businesses, all of which was detailed in a 2004 report entitled, “Yellow Peril Revisited”– a reference to historical anti-Chinese rhetoric.

“When a disease is racialized, you need to know that the every-day racism targeted at folks is bad and the trauma and anxiety remain,” said author and educator Dr. Carrianne Leung on Twitter Monday. “During SARS, the hyper surveillance and containment in public spaces, transit, their workplaces, schools, were terrible to live through.”

In the case of 2019-nCoV, there is currently one confirmed case and two presumptive case in Canada, but public health officials have said that more cases “would not be unexpected.”

While health officials have been urging Canadians to remain calm because the risk to public health is low, memories of the SARS outbreak and the impact on the Asian-Canadian community are quick to resurface.

“As a Chinese-Canadian woman and a Chinese-looking woman, having a cough these days would scare a lot of people away,” said Amy Go, interim president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice (CCNCSJ) in a telephone interview with Tuesday.

The CCNCSJ is a national organization that is aimed at addressing the issue of racism and discrimination and promoting equity and social justice.

Go said she was very pleased with the media’s efforts to reach out to groups including the CCNCSJ immediately after the first two Canadian cases of 2019-nCoV were announced, to “relate the experience from the SARS outbreak and to try and prevent that from happening again.”

However, Go noted that a lot of the public tension surrounding 2019-nCoV is currently centered around schools and online on social media platforms .

A petition, titled “Stop the Potential spreading of the Novel coronavirus in schools of York Region, Ontario,” calls for schools to keep track of students who have recently travelled to China and asks for families to stay isolated for a minimum of 17 days. As of this article's publishing time, it had more than 9,000 signatures.

The York Region District School Board (YRDSB) responded by releasing a note to parents that “individuals who make assumptions, even with positive intentions of safety about the risks of others and request or demand quarantine can be seen as demonstrating bias and racism,” according to The Canadian Press.

A second petition that has more than 30,000 signatures on is asking the school boards to “close all campuses in Ontario to stop the Wuhan virus” and to meet their five demands:

  • Ensure all students have access to medical supplies
  • Students attendance to classes must be optional
  • A committee must be formed to raise awareness and monitor the disease
  • Offer mental health support to the students in need
  • Students’ names and contact information must be recorded when attending large events.

On Twitter and other platforms, a video of a young Chinese woman using chopsticks and biting into a whole bat went viral as the news of 2019-nCoV began to spread out of Wuhan. Some media outlets picked up and promoted the video, and sinophobic, racist sentiment filled comments sections.

It turned out that the video was not filmed in China, and was a segment taken from Chinese celebrity vlogger Wang Mengyun’s trip to Palau, a Pacific island nation, in 2016.

She broke her silence Monday after allegedly being inundated with death threats, releasing a statement defending herself and the local cuisine she tried on her trip abroad.

Go said those reactions are a result of “racial profiling” of the Chinese community and are “purely out of unfounded fear and anxiety.”

“I was very unhappy to see that even amongst my own Facebook friends, who are highly educated, who experienced SARS, who have worked in social services or work in health, condone the racial profiling of the community,” she said, adding that those responses included members of the Chinese-Canadian community.

“I am very disheartened by that… the social media response is sad, frustrating and concerning for Chinese-Canadians,” Go said. “It labels, marginalizes and discriminates against the community.”

Go said that compared to SARS, which was “seen as a ‘hospital disease’” due to its effect on health-care workers, 2019-nCoV is seen as a “community thing,” and has allowed “irrational perceptions” and “deep-seated racism to rear its head.”

“We collectively have a responsibility to speak up and educate everybody about racism and discrimination,” Go said, adding that especially includes children and their parents.

“You must [tell your children] there is racism, there is discrimination during times such as this one, unfortunately some of your fellow students are going to be targeted and how can we help them?” she said. “Children are smart, and bright – they know, they understand and see that. They see the bullying and how people are being marginalized and isolated and being hurt.”

Go, who worked alongside Ontario public health officials during the SARS outbreak to speak out against racism and targeted discrimination, is urging all “levels of government” to take this opportunity to “correct misconceptions and racist behaviour” being displayed in response to 2019-nCoV and address how that affects public health. Something she says that the 2007 public inquiry into the SARS epidemic failed to do.

“We’re one step behind,” Go said. “The coronavirus is unfortunately not going to end immediately – so it is a continuing responsibility of public health and individual responsibility to address racism.”