2020-01-31 12:52:17 UTC
A newspaper front page called it a Chinese virus. Fake posts
have warned people to avoid Chinese products. As the outbreak
spreads, some worry about xenophobia.
The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia
bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This weeks issue is written
by Isabella Kwai, a reporter with the Australia bureau.
Recently, when Andy Miao takes the train to work in Sydney, he
has noticed other peoples disapproving looks if he does not
wear a face mask. Although he does not have the coronavirus, Mr.
Miao, who is of Chinese heritage and grew up in Australia, knows
its because of one reason: his ethnicity.
It makes people like me who are very, very Australian feel like
outsiders, said Mr. Miao, 24, who returned from a trip to China
earlier this month and has since seen jokes degrading Chinese
people. Its definitely invoking a lot of past racial
But as the World Health Organization declared a global health
emergency after the virus spread to countries including
Australia, he is worried about an outbreak of misinformation,
panic and xenophobia.
The virus has killed more than 200 people, with nearly 10,000
cases reported, though in Australia there are just a handful of
cases, and health officials have said that the risk of catching
it for many Australians is low.
Still, universities have delayed exams, face masks used only
weeks ago against bush-fire smoke are a common sight, and the
government plans to evacuate Australians from the epicenter of
the outbreak in China.
Other responses here in Australia, where the relationship with
China is contentious, have taken a more xenophobic bent.
Some far-right lawmakers polled their followers, asking if
Australians should ban Chinese people temporarily from the
country. A newspaper in Victoria, The Herald Sun, called the
coronavirus a Chinese Virus on its front page, prompting over
40,000 people to sign a petition demanding an apology. On social
media, fake announcements are warning people away from Chinese-
populated areas, and memes are making light of early reports
that the virus jumped from wild animals to humans.
Racism feeds on fear and anxiety, said Tim Soutphommasane, a
former race-discrimination commissioner and now a professor at
the University of Sydney. While the virus originated in China,
viral diseases dont have ethnic, racial or national
characteristics, he said, adding that the misinformation was
On Wednesday, the government said that it planned to evacuate
Australians citizens from the province to Christmas Island, an
Australian territory 2,000 miles away from the mainland, to be
quarantined for 14 days.
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But many questioned the implications of using Christmas Island,
where refugees and asylum seekers have been held, instead of
military bases on the mainland.
It was not an appropriate place to quarantine people, Dr. Tony
Bartone, president of the Australian Medical Association, said
in a television news interview. Faced with the decision, many
Australians are opting to stay behind in lockdown.
Some of the rhetoric has been reminiscent of a time when Chinese
people were purposely excluded from the country. You could read
a similar article in the goldfields in 1860s Victoria, said Jon
Piccini, a lecturer in history at the Australian Catholic
As scientists race to develop a vaccine, the virus is likely to
continue to spread. Many wonder if it will further perpetuate
stereotypes the same ones that once prompted Australia to ban
nonwhites from calling the country home.
Mr. Miao said he did not blame people for being ignorant, though
he added, I dont think its very fair.
Have you noticed or been affected by the fear around the
coronavirus? Write to me at ***@nytimes.com.
You can read more of our coverage here, or follow our
correspondent Chris Buckley, who is reporting from Wuhan, on
Now, on to stories from the week.
Michelle Elias contributed reporting.