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Coronavirus: Chinese community in Australia complain of racism as MPs call for calm

Australia’s population of about 25 million includes more than 1.

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Updated: February 10, 2020

2 million people of Chinese heritage.

The coronavirus outbreak has taken a toll on Australia’s Chinese community, including a loss of trade at Chinese restaurants and stores as well as increased reports of racism.

Since the outbreak of the virus, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, there have been growing reports of members of the Chinese-Australian community – and the Asian-Australian community – being subject to vitriol or racist slurs.

A surgeon in the Gold Coast in Queensland, Dr Rhea Liang, recounted an experience late last month in which a patient joked in front of her and her colleagues about not shaking her hand because of the coronavirus.

In a tweet that was shared more than 2,000 times, Dr Liang later wrote: “I have not left Australia. This is not sensible public health precautions. This is #racism.”

Others recounted similar incidents.

A journalist, Ms Iris Zhao, described being in a supermarket when a middle-aged woman passed her and said “Asians… stay home… stop spreading the virus”. Ms Zhao said the incident prompted several of her Chinese-Australian friends to tell her of similar experiences.

“One (friend) recounted how a waiter had dumped change at his table before turning and quickly walking away after my friend paid cash for a meal at a Melbourne restaurant,” she wrote on the ABC News website.

“Another, who wore a mask as a precaution at a shopping mall on Friday, had three teenagers tell her: ‘See you! Go and catch coronavirus.'”

She added: “Before this experience, racism was something I knew existed but had only experienced via other people’s stories.”

2 million people of Chinese heritage. In some parts of large cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne, Chinese-Australians are the largest ethnic group and far outnumber those with Australian ancestry.

Australia has recorded 15 cases of the virus. The federal government has imposed a travel ban on foreigners arriving from China. Those who are not Australian citizens or residents are not allowed to enter until 14 days since they left or passed through China.

Since the outbreak, there have also been reports of fake social media campaigns in Australia urging people to stay away from areas with large numbers of Chinese-Australians.

Separately, members of the Chinese-Australian community started an online petition to demand that two mass-circulation newspapers apologise for their “offensive” coverage of the coronavirus. The campaign attacked Melbourne’s Herald Sun for referring to the “Chinese virus” and criticised the Daily Telegraph for a headline that referred to “China kids” staying home. The petition has received 72,000 signatures.

The concerns about racist incidents prompted a federal MP, Mr Andrew Giles, this week to call in Parliament for an end to the xenophobic outpourings prompted by the coronavirus outbreak. He said the public health response was being “undermined” by the targeting of Chinese-Australians and Asian-Australians.

“We see… constant and challenging stories of racism being directed against Chinese-Australians and indeed Asian-Australians more generally,” he told Parliament. “This is not a Chinese disease.”

A research officer at the Australian National University, Ms Yun Jiang, co-editor of the China Neican newsletter, said she did not believe the coronavirus had “turned people into racists” but it was inflaming existing community prejudices.

“So now people who perhaps have existing prejudice suddenly have an excuse to act out with racist behaviour and remarks,” she told the website.

Areas across Australia with large Chinese-Australian populations have experienced a noticeable downturn in foot traffic as local Chinese-Australians and other customers stay away. Some shops and restaurants have stayed shut in recent weeks due to a lack of business.

In Box Hill, an area in east Melbourne with a large Chinese-Australian community, some shop-owners said this week that business was down by as much as 90 per cent.

An Asian grocery store owner, Mr Vincent Liu, told ABC News that trade had worsened following a recent rumour that someone infected with the virus had visited the area.

Similar scenes have unfolded across Australia in areas with large Chinese-Australian communities.

On Friday (Feb 07), a mix of MPs from the ruling Coalition and the Labor party visited the shops in Box Hill to show support for the local community and to urge the public to keep shopping and eating there.

Ms Gladys Liu, a federal Liberal MP, told the local Whitehorse Leader newspaper: “We need to stay calm. We don’t need to panic.”

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About the Author: The Straits Times is Singapore's top-selling newspaper.

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