Yellow perils? No - just proud members of the London community

Dr Edmond Ng
Spread of stigma is giving coronavirus a helping hand

Chinese restaurants are losing business in Australia. France faces 'epidemic' of anti-Asian racism. #ChineseDon'tComeToJapan trending on Twitter.

Widespread stigmatization against Chinese and East Asian diaspora has been reported in many countries since the outbreak of COVID-19 began. Sadly, London is no different. From the physical to the verbal, abuse towards these communities is on the rise in the capital.

This is not the first time a section of our society has been made a scapegoat for causing harm to the British public. Prejudice and fear have long been fuelled by rumours and misinformation on social media, as well as some mainstream media outlets.

Little restraint was shown from perpetuating the debunked myth of the use of smuggled meat in a Chinese catering business as the direct source of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001. Our community was not vindicated until an apology was given by the then Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown.

Of course the issues are complex. Nobody is solely to blame. Cultural differences can play a part too. The deadly toll of SARS and MERS has left an indelible collective traumatic memory in East Asia. Many Londoners may not realise that in these countries facemask-wearing is perceived as a civic responsibility to avoid disease spreading, and even a symbol of defiance in their fight against deadly viruses.

And that is the spirit needed in the UK and beyond. While the use, and effectiveness, of facemasks to protect against becoming infected or transmitting (where the main benefit lies) coronavirus remains a hot topic, the difference in perceptions of the sight of facemasks on public transport and in communal places is perhaps a catalyst for rising levels of fear.

We should be fighting the virus, not ourselves.

I’m proud to be a member of London’s Chinese Community, and to work at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Colleagues are working hard to understand more about this new virus, but there is one thing we can be sure of. This coronavirus does not discriminate. No virus cares about race, gender or sexual orientation.

The headline ‘new yellow perils’ carried recently by a French newspaper is reminiscent of concerted misinformation campaigns during the European conquest of the ‘backwards’ exotic Far East. This type of rhetoric jeopardises the world’s progress in tackling stigma.

Forget fear and misinformation. In the weeks to come, compassion and collaboration must spread faster than the virus itself if it is to be defeated.


Listen to LSHTM's 'Viral' podcast episode Viruses don't discriminate:

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