Opinion | Coronavirus is exposing the UK's racism


By Isaac Chambers, First Year Law

The coronavirus outbreak has been accompanied by considerable panic and overt racism towards Chinese nationals, in particular Chinese students who make up 28% of the Chinese population in the UK. This has sent the nation into a racist hysteria and racist treatment of Asians, because many in the West often struggle to distinguish Asians.

The first cases of the virus were not reported until 31 December 2019. Many of the Chinese students had already flocked back home for the winter break to be with their families for Chinese New Year which fell on 25 January. Students who did not have exams were not expected back until the week commencing 27 January.

Over the course of the month, the coronavirus not only spread rapidly across China but also around the world, claiming hundreds of lives. It has since surpassed SARS with the number of people affected.

The Wuhan region in China is under lockdown to prevent further contamination. Countries have started closing their borders to people from mainland China and foreign nationals who have recently visited China. This has left students stranded through no fault of their own, having to endure a surge in racist rhetoric towards them on social media.

Coronavirus has left students stranded through no fault of their own

Those who were relieved when they managed to return to their universities before borders were closed have found themselves the subject of racist and xenophobic treatment in person. The mood around campus has been hostile towards Asians since the spring term began. It is upsetting and worrisome that international students and students of Asian heritage alike have had to endure these experiences anywhere, but least of all on our university campus.’

Racism towards these students has ranged from passing comments from classmates in lectures complaining about Chinese students not staying back home/self-isolating for everyone’s benefit or wishing those who wore masks were quarantined. There’s also been the unsympathetic exchange of casually racist memes about my Chinese housemate in my student house. A fellow student who works for 111 said he had a particularly disturbing call when someone rang to ask if they had coronavirus because they had been in a bus filled with Chinese people.

As the situation grows increasingly out of hand because there is still no cure or vaccine, the racism is becoming more overt.

It reached new heights when a hazmat unit was spotted taking a student with flu-like symptoms to the hospital from Wills hall of residence, University of Bristol. The frenzy and racist conversations which followed the incident showed an utter lack of empathy for those having to deal with the fear of having contracted it or worrying about loved ones back home.

My friend Helen, a fellow student, went back home to Wuhan for the winter break. She had not been back home for a couple of years and wanted to celebrate Chinese New Year with her family. She is now unable to return due to the lockdown. Helen describes Chinese New Year as the equivalent of Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. Besides its historical and traditional significance in Chinese culture, she says it is the only time of the year where families have the opportunity to reunite and enjoy a home-cooked meal together. Families often don’t see each other for a whole year, and the reunion dinner on Chinese New Year is something everyone looks forward to.

However, the coronavirus has ruined this celebration for many people.

The situation in China is dire and worthy of empathy, not a lack of compassion. Public transport has shut down in several cities; vehicles unrelated to the containment of the coronavirus are not allowed on the road. Entire cities of millions are under lockdown, and far too many people are displaying a distressing lack of empathy for those who are at risk.

This isn’t the first time the world has faced a deadly outbreak of disease which originated from non-white nations; far too often, the first instinct of the west has always been a racist one. There was a similar reaction towards the African community when Ebola broke out. This was used to further fuel already existent racist propaganda.

The situation in China is dire and worthy of empathy, not a lack of compassion

It seems as though it is easy to get wrapped up in the misinformation culture which ails our societies and resort to humour – often racist and at the expense of those with less power and privilege – to trivialise the graveness of the particular epidemic, but that is the first world western privilege we enjoy.

Bristol has often prided itself as a liberal beacon; but as a person of colour living in this city and attending its university, it has not recently lived up to its billing. We have not come as far as we would like to think we have with the issue of race and the coronavirus epidemic has really exposed that for all to see.

How do you think Coronavirus has affected campus?