Canada's Chinese community faces racist abuse in wake of coronavirus

Leyland Cecco in Toronto
Photograph: Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock

When Toronto resident Terri Chu tweeted that she and other Chinese mothers feared the “inevitable wave of racism” that would accompany the spread of coronavirus around the world, she didn’t realize how visceral the reactions would be.

“My Twitter has just exploded with vitriol since this morning,” she said on Tuesday. “But it’s just par for the course, growing up as a minority when you’re not part of a dominant class.”

Related: What is the coronavirus and how worried should we be?

Canada has so far seen three confirmed cases of the virus, which originated in China, but members of the country’s Chinese community have already become the target of racism.

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?


It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.


What other coronaviruses have there been?


Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals.


What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?


The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.


Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?


Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission. As of 27 January, the Chinese authorities had acknowledged more than 2,700 cases and 56 deaths. In the past week, the number of confirmed infections has more than tripled and cases have been found in 13 provinces, as well as the municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin. The virus has also been confirmed outside China, in Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the US, and Vietnam. There have not been any confirmed cases in the UK at present, with the more than 70 people tested for the virus all proving negative. The actual number to have contracted the virus could be far higher as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by WHO experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.


How worried are the experts?


There were fears that the coronavirus might spread more widely during the week-long lunar new year holidays, which start on 24 January, when millions of Chinese travel home to celebrate, but the festivities have largely been cancelled and Wuhan and other Chinese cities are in lockdown.


At what point should you go to the doctor if you have a cough, say?


Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that there is generally no need to visit a doctor for a cough unless it is persistent or you are having other symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or you feel very unwell.


Should we panic?


No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. It increases the likelihood that the World Health Organization will declare the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday evening. The key concerns are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 


The country saw a similar wave of xenophobia during 2003 Sars outbreak, which also started in China.

During that panic, many Chinese-run businesses in Canada took steep losses as fear overrode public health advice: Toronto lost an estimated C$1bn as residents and tourists avoided the city, especially areas with a high concentration of Chinese businesses.

The irrational public worry that paralyzed much of the city seems to be returning, said Amy Go, the interim president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice.

“I was hopeful it wasn’t going to be like 2003. But it’s is. It’s happening now and it’s just going to be amplified [by social media].”

When a popular Toronto blog, reviewed a new Chinese restaurant on Instagram on Monday, the post quickly received a torrent of racist comments.

And nearly 9,000 parents in the York school district – an area north of Toronto – signed a petition demanding students who had traveled to China in the last 17 days be prevented from attending school.

“This has to stop. Stop eating wild animals and then infecting everyone around you,” wrote one petition signer. “Stop the spread and quarantine yourselves or go back.”

On Monday, the board – which represents 208 schools – condemned the petition amid fears students will be targeted based on their ethnicity.

“We are aware of an escalated level of concern and anxiety among families of Chinese heritage,” wrote York board chair Juanita Nathan and education director Louise Sirisko. “Individuals who make assumptions, even with positive intentions of safety, about the risk of others, request or demand quarantine can be seen as demonstrating bias and racism.”

Chu said fears about the coronavirus were disproportionate.

“Air pollution and the proliferation of STDs are far greater public health risk to my kids than the coronavirus right now – it’s being completely blown out of proportion,” she said. The total death toll of Sars in Canada was 44, she said. “Last year in Toronto, 41 people got hit by cars.”

Related: Boarding schools with Chinese pupils urged to be alert for xenophobia

Racist responses have also been seen in other countries with Chinese diaspora communities. In Australia, Queensland MP Duncan Pegg warned residents of false health bulletins circulating online that stoked fear of communities with high proportions Asian residents.

But Go also said that the reactions in Canada – which includes some of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world – expose a current of everyday racism which is always present.

“Two or three months from now, the coronavirus will likely be gone. But this is not just a public health issue. This is an issue of racism in Canada. “The best thing to come from this – the best impact – would be people collectively learning that we can do better.”