Coronavi-RACE: The race for a cure or the race for toilet paper and xenophobia?

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Words | Saliha Rehanaz

Armed with face masks, hand sanitizers, and disinfectant, millions around the world are living in fear of today’s biggest threat – COVID 19. First reported in December 2019 in Wuhan City in China, COVID-19 (also known as Coronavirus) has travelled thousands of miles to reach every corner of the world. While data and statistics are imperative to highlighting the gravity of this virus, the numbers are radically increasing making it excruciatingly difficult to provide an exact figure on individuals who have contracted the disease. On March 6th, cases of Coronavirus worldwide surpassed 100,000 and it is predicted that this number will continue to rise. 

Amidst the panic of being infected by the Coronavirus, the outbreak has revealed the darker side of human nature in our responses to new diseases and other catastrophic events: mistrust, fear, and outright racism. The surge of fear and racism in the face of this latest outbreak echoes that of other diseases, such as the Ebola and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) viruses. Scapegoating, discrimination, and victim-blaming have been prevalent in the aftermath of such infectious diseases. 

As news of the outbreak first surfaced, xenophobia and racism related to the coronavirus was limited to offensive memes on social media and verbal attacks in online comment sections. However, it did not take long before racial slurs turned to violent physical assault. On February 24th, Jonathan Mok, a 23-year-old Singaporean, shared the horrific details of the attack he faced while walking down Oxford Street in central London. Mok, who may need an operation on a broken bone near his right eye, was repeatedly punched and kicked by four males, after he confronted them. Unable to remember exactly what had been said, Mok mentioned in his Facebook post that the men told him they ‘didn’t want his Coronavirus in their country’, as they continued to assault him. 

Along with the description of the attack, Mok posted photos of his sustained facial injuries, which attracted attention from tens of thousands of accounts worldwide. “Racism is not stupidity — racism is hate. Racists constantly find excuses to expound their hatred — and in this current backdrop of the coronavirus, they’ve found yet another excuse,” he wrote.

Several accounts of racism and xenophobia have been reported and documented on social media since Mok’s post was shared publicly. While some government officials and politicians have denounced such incidents related to the outbreak, others think much more could be done to show support for Chinese communities worldwide. In the beginning of March this year, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations human rights chief, called on member states to combat discrimination triggered by the virus. 

The Coronavirus has also spread panic in Australia with the sudden increase in those infected, after a man in his 40s returned from Iran and became the fifth confirmed case in New South Wales. Fear surfaced in the Macquarie community when news of a lecturer from the Faculty of Science and Engineering, also returning from Iran, tested positive for the Coronavirus. According to a statement released by the university, “Our staff member became ill following their return from Iran and took immediate steps to seek medical attention… [He] has not been present at Macquarie University’s campus since returning and has had no contact with either staff or students.” 

On March 8th, the third Coronavirus-related death in Australia took place when the health department confirmed the death of an 82-year-old man from the same aged care facility, Baptist Care Macquarie Park, where a 95-year old resident had died earlier. A female healthcare worker in her 30s at Ryde Hospital tested positive for the virus as well, and it had been confirmed that she had been in contact with a patient who tested positive at Baptist Care. 

The New South Wales Health Department told sixty-nine staff and students from the nearby Epping Boys High School to self-isolate for fourteen days after a student tested positive for the virus. The school was closed on March 6th and the New South Wales Department of Education said it would reopen on March 9th after being thoroughly cleaned. 

Apart from buying protective gear to prepare for this contagious disease, Australians around the country have taken on the mission to buy as much toilet paper as they can possibly find. As people make memes and find amusement in Australians’ plans to battle Coronavirus with toilet paper, concerns are rising for numerous communities. National food aid charity, Foodbank, says the recent spike in shoppers clearing shelves of essentials like toilet paper and basic medicine have ensured that the most vulnerable people are being left behind. 

Over the past few days, numerous images highlighted the empty shelves across the nation as people have been rapidly stocking up on supplies. Unfortunately, this has left pensioners, residents in retirement homes, and people with disabilities turning up to their local shops on their weekly shopping trip, only to face bare shelves and head home empty-handed. To combat the frenzy, Coles and Woolworths have implemented four-pack-per-customer limits on toilet paper. 

Thousands of people around the world are currently unable to leave their homes. Italy has ordered the closure of all schools and universities, leaving people in fear of their lives and education. The Italian government is also reportedly considering further measures, including the closure of cinemas and theatres and the suspensions of public events. In the regions worst hit by the emergency, such as Lombardy, theatres and cinemas are already closed and will remain so. Italians have also received guidance to refrain from the traditional greeting of kissing on the cheek and hugging, to avoid crowded places, and keep a distance of one to two meters from others. 

It is difficult to predict which way this outbreak is heading, however all we can do is ensure we are taking the necessary measures to protect ourselves and that the information we share is not only correct, but free of harmful stereotypes and racial undertones. 

This outbreak ultimately leaves us with a simple question: are we entering a fear of a pandemic, or a pandemic of fear?

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