TORONTO -- The early efforts by the Chinese community in Toronto to quell the spread of coronavirus at the beginning of the year were largely overshadowed by stigma and Sinophobia at the time, according to new research.

The York University research project, which was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, aimed to examine the discrimination and stigmatization of the Chinese community in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aaida Mamuji, a professor in the disaster management department at York University who led the research, said they conducted interviews with dozens of individuals from the Chinese diaspora in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and in Nairobi, Kenya in order to learn about their lived experiences during the beginning of the crisis.

Mamuji said they learned that in January and February, as news of the virus’ spread in China and other countries first arrived in Canada, members of the Chinese community in the GTA were already taking precautions, such as mask wearing and physical distancing, long before those measures became mandatory anywhere in the country.

She listed further examples, such as the cancellation of numerous Chinese New Year festivities, restaurant owners in Chinatown requiring their employees to undergo temperature checks as early as January, and those who had travelled to China voluntarily self-quarantining when they arrived home.

“There's so many examples that we really need to focus on because the Chinese community, in fact, helped us cope with COVID-19,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. “You can only wonder where our numbers would be had they not taken those measures so early on.”

These efforts were largely unnoticed, according to Mamuji, because of Sinophobia and misplaced blame for the disease on the Chinese community.

In Nairobi, where there’s a large Chinese diaspora, Mamuji said researchers discovered the fear of stigma was so great during the pandemic that individuals from the Chinese community were seeking out Chinese medicine for care instead of visiting public health-care facilities.

Mamuji said the information they collected for the project will be shared with emergency management professionals so it can be used to develop culturally-specific public education and de-stigmatization campaigns to counter misinformation and stigma against certain groups in the future.

“We really need to work together to address these issues of stigma, especially during a pandemic, because ultimately what it does is exacerbate the spread of the disease,” she said.