Collateral damage in the time of COVID-19

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People of Asian ethnicity the target of spiralling racism (Screenshot South China Morning Post via Youtube)

Unless it condemns racist rhetoric, Australia risks adding racial harmony to its list of COVID-19 casualties, writes Suresh Rajan.

AS A PERSON involved in the "race space" over many years in this country, it appears we are headed toward another meltdown in Australia's fragile harmony.

And we have not one leader to address this matter with the force and commitment that it requires.

What we are seeing at the same time as the incessant and in my view quite appropriate amount of quality information coming from medical and government authorities, is an outbreak of racism.

Some of this racism is viral and online through social media platforms. However, some of it is in mainstream media — electronic and written. Radio shock jocks have delighted in stirring up the blame game by referring to the virus as a “Chinese" virus. One has gone so far as to express incredulity that "China has unleashed this virus on the world and now is profiting by selling facemasks and other medical supplies."

Here are some recent examples of racism outbreaks:

  • people who appear to be Asian in origin being abused at supermarkets;
  • a Malaysian student being denied rental accommodation;
  • the Chinese being blamed for the virus;
  • Chinese restaurants seeing a marked drop off in patronage;
  • students at some schools being mocked as “Coronas” in the playground (my son has witnessed this personally);
  • my niece – of Indian ancestry – and another young girl being abused on a train in Melbourne — the abuse was about them “being the problem" that led the abuser to have to take his children out of school;
  • snide remarks being made to people of general “Asian” appearance; and
  • talkback hosts allowing these comments to go to air without regard for community outcomes.

While our leaders have been very good in encouraging people to go to Chinese restaurants to try and minimise the economic damage that has been caused, little has been done to call racism out explicitly.

Such racial stereotyping and name-calling has not been assisted by the President of the United States and the U.S. Senate. While the President has maximised his exploitation of the opportunity to deride China for unleashing the “Chinese virus”, the blame game has been compounded by the U.S. House of Representatives introducing a resolution to do the same. It also seeks to hold China accountable for the damage caused by a virus initiated there. 

All this has done is to expose the very thin layer of racial “ tolerance” that we practise in this country. It is patently obvious that the virus knows no racial or ethnic or national boundaries. The deaths in countries in broader Asia and Europe and all the continents of the world are testimony to that status.

My immediate questions are: What are we going to gain from this blame game? How does any of this "flatten the curve" of infection numbers?

People who have challenged my position in so far as the naming of the virus as a “Chinese" virus, have pointed to the Spanish Flu as an example supporting their view. It usually comes as a shock to them to learn that the Spanish Flu did not emanate from Spain but in fact came from parts of China. It was named the Spanish Flu when the numbers of deceased in Spain exceeded those of other countries. Following such nomenclature, logic would have us calling this the “Italian" or "Spanish" virus.

But again, I ask the question: "How is this is going to assist our fight against the virus in our countries?"

Some people have pointed to the issue of “wet markets" in China and the potential breeding ground for viruses of this nature. They point to what they call “abhorrent” eating habits. There are just as many people in the world who may find the killing of sheep and cattle and other animals abhorrent.

Yes, the wet markets need to be closed down for health reasons but that is not going to happen by condemning the practice of eating what has come to be regarded as part of some people's staple diet. Surely, the process of educating the community is our best and most sustainable approach to that problem.

If there is one piece of advice I would proffer to PM Scott Morrison and Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs David Coleman or Health Minister Greg Hunt, it is to condemn these acts of sheer racist rhetoric and ask Australians to call out such acts when they see them being perpetrated. I have done that on a few occasions and generally had people think twice about the irrelevance of playing the blame game.

Let us focus our efforts on finding a way to combat the virus rather than inculcating hate in our lives.

Suresh Rajan is the president of the Ethnic Communities Council of Western Australia and a regular contributor on the subject of multiculturalism. You can follow Suresh on Twitter @SureshRajan6.

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