Intolerance increase feared as disease spreads

Observers wary of cultural tensions in B.C. communities

Metro Vancouver’s Chinese community from Hubei – the origin province of the coronavirus outbreak that has infected thousands in China and elsewhere – is urging public tolerance as members snatch up medical masks to send home, while some academics fear a rise in racial tension over the disease’s spread.

As B.C. confirms its first case of the coronavirus that has killed more than 170 people in China as of last week, there is now concern that people who wear masks to protect themselves – largely members of the Chinese-speaking communities from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong – may begin facing intolerance from other Canadians who have stigmatized mask-wearing, said one community leader.

“In Asia, wearing masks on your face is something that’s completely normal,” said Kevin Huang, co-founder and executive director of the Hua Foundation, a social-environment non-profit organization with a focus on local Chinese-speaking communities. “Here, when you wear one out and about, you are looked at as fully contagious. In a global epidemic, everyone needs to participate in the preventative measures … because it has been proven that people can carry the virus without the symptoms; that’s more reason for people to mask up.

“The stigma of the mask in North America, we need to get over that,” Huang added.

As the coronavirus news spreads, more people are wearing face masks in Metro Vancouver’s largest Chinese-speaking neighbourhoods. Many stores have reported shortages of medical masks or are sold out altogether. Yves Tiberghien, director emeritus at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, confirmed that a local London Drugs store in Vancouver was sold out of masks – and that one demographic is doing all the buying.

“I went to London Drugs in Kerrisdale and asked if they had been selling masks, and they were sold out,” Tiberghien said. “I asked one of the clerks if the buyers were almost all from the Chinese community, and the answer was yes. The primary factor is still that this virus originated in China, and so everyone here who has relatives that are affected will face a personal impact from the outbreak.”

That is the case for members of the China Hubei Association of Vancouver, whose members have been actively buying masks with the intention of sending them to relatives in Hubei and the epicentre of Wuhan city to stave off infections.

Monika Wu, president of the association, said most if not all of its 1,000 members in the Lower Mainland have relatives and friends in the outbreak zone (centred in the metropolitan area of Wuhan city), and several have spoken with family in Hubei who have contracted the virus.

Wu confirmed that no one with links to the Vancouver community has died in the Wuhan outbreak, but association members are still concerned “beyond belief” about the well-being of family back home. She said that the association is urging people to limit “panic-buying” of items like facial masks to send home.

“Yes, we did buy quite a bit – but we need to be considerate of local needs,” Wu said. “We have people living overseas everywhere in the world, and everyone is buying masks to send home. If that has created panic or inconvenience, we’d like to emphasize that is not our intention; please understand that we are trying to help control the outbreak at its source, because if China cannot contain it, I think we can all see how much worse things can get.”

For many Chinese-Canadians, the news of the coronavirus reignited the memories of trauma of the SARS outbreak in 2003 that caused 774 deaths and had a fatality rate of almost 10%. Both Huang and Tiberghien agree that the experience is one of the main reasons why the Chinese-speaking communities in Vancouver and elsewhere have reacted so viscerally to the news of the coronavirus outbreak even if they have no ties to Hubei or Wuhan.

“Health and longevity have always been of great importance in Chinese culture,” Tiberghien said. “For example, here during Christmas, you don’t say ‘Good health’ before ‘Merry Christmas.’ But a Chinese New Year’s greeting almost always includes some good wishes on health. So it is something very cultural – and when you combine that with modern social media where news spreads really quickly, something like this triggers an equally quick and fundamental reaction.”

Huang added that the chasm between the attitudes of the Chinese-speaking communities in Metro Vancouver and those in the mainstream is worrisome, and the reactions he has seen in the public towards mask-wearing citizens reflect that concern.

“I saw people visibly concerned around someone on the SkyTrain who was wearing a mask,” he said. “At the same time, there was someone else right close by who was coughing openly,  uncovered, and no one reacted…. By dehumanizing the Chinese, it gives licence to the possibility of not affording people the right to choose to protect themselves health-wise. We need to be very careful about that, because a disease is not going to care what ethnicity you are.”

Wu said she has seen first-hand the phenomenon described by Huang, adding that the scrutiny is unwarranted. She noted that people in the Vancouver community who recently returned from Wuhan have been self-quarantining, voluntarily isolating themselves in their homes for a week or more.

“The outbreak has made Wuhan famous, good or bad,” she said. “But not everyone from Wuhan is infected. I’ve seen a few instances where people see us and automatically think we carry the virus, and that’s wholly unnecessary. It’s not helpful…. Everyone’s interest is the same in this situation, so let’s be supportive of one another as we try to work our way out of this.”

The China Hubei Association, Wu said, kicked off a private fundraising effort as soon as news spread of the outbreak’s acceleration earlier this month. It has raised 40,000 Chinese yuan ($7,590) and an additional $4,000, but the group is now struggling to find a way to channel the money to buy resources that can be distributed in Wuhan and Hubei – both of which have been put in de facto quarantine by Chinese authorities.

“None of us have been able to sleep well for at least a week,” Wu said. “We are worrying about this every single day, trying to track down a distributor in China who can get our donations into the hands of people in Wuhan. But these pathways are simply not very open right now. We are all spent and are under so much pressure.”

Meanwhile, Huang urged Canadian and B.C. health authorities to step up efforts to inform the Chinese-speaking public because Chinese social media has been flooded with rumours and dubious information in the face of the lack of reliable information about the outbreak coming out of China.

“I do think this is an area where the government can take a stronger stance,” he said. “Vancouver is a transit hub to the Asia-Pacific in terms of flights, so we need material that’s credible and trustworthy in Chinese. And I haven’t seen anything; with the Great Firewall of China, there’s a bunch of rumours and videos circulating about what’s real and what’s not. The mistrust of government, both from mainland Chinese who are there and from overseas communities, all creates a toxic environment where rumours abound.

“So what can we do to educate people with credible, up-to-date information so they can protect themselves? And I think that’s critical at this stage, because social media has clearly exacerbated the type of rumours spreading when compared to SARS.”