Opinion

Stop blaming us for the coronavirus, say SA's bullied Asian communities

Keith Tamkei says the rampant spread of Covid-19 is infecting society with xenophobia

19 March 2020 - 08:37 By Keith Tamkei
'They run away from me at school — they say I have coronavirus.'
'They run away from me at school — they say I have coronavirus.'
Image: 123RF/jovannig

In the shadow of Covid-19, another scourge roams in SA — also highly infectious, inflicting invisible festering wounds. “They run away from me at school — they say I have coronavirus,” was the lament of a seven-year old girl about her class mates. Of Chinese descent, the daughter of a friend had to be consoled with difficult explanations. Fortunately, the girl was resilient and bounced back, but how many are not?

It was the first time I was confronted with the Asian stigma of the virus, though I wasn't surprised. South Africans of Asian descent have long had to deal with being labelled as dog and cat eaters, supporters of the poaching trade and evil exotic meat consumers. It is the lazy and ignorant path to intersect homogeny and these practices. And now, we are supposedly virus carriers too.

Janet* was the subject of ridicule when a colleague would cover their nose and mouth and repeat “corona” as she walked past. When she bravely confronted the perpetrator, he dismissed it as a joke.

Elsewhere, South Africans of Asian descent have been blatantly denied service at retail stores or given a wide berth in restaurants or queues. A student at the University of Venda was openly mocked and jeered by fellow students shouting “corona”.  

A Facebook post of a Johannesburg woman says: “I don’t really give a damn if I offend Chinese people or not, bec [sic] in all honesty ... they [sic] offending me. Eating dogs and cats ... You spreading all diseases and now Corona.”  

Erwin Pon, chairperson of The Chinese Association (TCA) in Gauteng, sends me a list of incidents reported on the TCA social media page revealing that virus-related sinophobia comes from a broad spectrum of society — in other words, from people who should know better than to simply lump blame on Asians. But the danger exists that as internal infections increase, the Asian population, with their homes and businesses, will be an easy target and scapegoat.

On Monday, a report came through of a Chinese-owned shop in the Western Cape being torched in apparent coronavirus fear. Based on the xenophobic experience locally, the next stop is rampant looting, criminality and violence.

There have been reports of a Chinese-owned shop in the Western Cape being torched in apparent coronavirus fear

The stereotyping is global. In the US, a video shows an Asian man being doused with water while innocently having a cigarette; while in the London, a Singaporean man was beaten and told his coronavirus was unwelcome. One must simply search online for Covid-19-related xenophobia to realise the vast extent of how fear of the virus has induced societal violence and irrationality.

Politicians and populists will be quick to use national malady for their own gain and opponents ill — and why Donald Trump will insist on using the term “Chinese virus”.

SA’s discontented society is not immune from blaming and manipulative messaging. Pon, in response, advises that we should learn to filter. “There’s a lot of fake news to stir anti-Chinese sentiment.” We should also be aware of the bias in our daily speech within our social groups and, especially, as the aforementioned example showed, in front of our children.

There are positives. Globally, the hashtag #Iamnotavirus is gaining momentum highlighting the discrimination towards Asians in the wake of Covid-19. And according to Pon, local communities have stood in solidarity against ignorance. Will it be enough, however, as the numbers of infections continue to rise? Will South Africans embrace or ignore rationality? Sadly, our recent history on responses to xenophobic sentiments do not bode well.

*Not her real name.