“Let me be clear. There is no place in our country for discrimination driven by fear or misinformation. This is not something Canadians will ever stand for.” said Prime Minister Trudeau in February. The Covid-19 pandemic has upended the world in more ways than one. Some changes have been positive such as the decrease in air pollution being recorded across the globe while other fallouts such as the widespread economic crises have been far more destructive. Asides from the economic and environmental consequences, one area often overlooked has been the social fallout from the virus. Specifically, the rise in xenophobia towards people of Asian descent. A comparison of Canada and the United States regarding the response to such xenophobia is vital in explaining how the top leaderships of countries can either exacerbate or neutralize such societal upheavals.
The reasons for this backlash are two-fold. Firstly, there are numerous videos and articles being promoted on the internet showcasing the wet markets of China and depicting Chinese citizens eating live animals. While the authenticity of these videos cannot be confirmed, the presence of Chinese wet markets has long been documented and criticized, especially after the SARS epidemic of 2003. Wet markets are hotbeds of viral transmissions due to the myriad of different animals being sold in confined spaces without much regard for health regulations.
Partly due to the backlash that many Chinese citizens are being subjected to globally, the Chinese government has banned the trade and consumption of wild animals. Nonetheless, the current political context resulting from the rivalry between the US and China has fueled a sense of hostility towards people of Asian descent. Some stakeholders in Washington have taken it upon themselves to shift the blame for America’s high infection rates from the lax response of the US government to the purported dishonesty exhibited by the Chinese government during the early days of the outbreak. The latter narrative has been instrumental in promoting a sense of distrust towards people from Asian nations.
Examples of this backlash range from acts of violence to boycotts of Chinese restaurants. In the United States, several thousand instances of racism against Asian Americans have been recorded during the period of January 28th and February 24th. Furthermore, the online reporting forum “Stop AAPI Hate” reported 650 instances of discrimination against Asian Americans. Since then, these figures have grown exponentially in large part due to the rhetoric emanating from the White House. President Trump has frequently referred to Covid-19 as the “China Virus”. When faced with criticism, not only has he refused to change tack, but has doubled down and insisted that there has been nothing wrong with such terminology. Over time, with increased reports of xenophobic taunts and physical assaults against Asian Americans, Trump rolled back the usage of the term. The damage however, had been done and a latent feeling of anti-Chinese sentiment continues to bubble to the surface. While the American theatre has been the subject of much debate in terms of their response to Covid-19, other countries have also experienced similar societal upheavals, like Canada.
“Hopefully all I got today was a haircut” captioned CTV’s Peter Akman back in January 26th on a photo showing his Asian barber wearing a mask. He was later fired for the post. While Canada has long been regarded as a beacon of tolerance and inter-racial harmony, it too has not been completely immune to the social backlash that many people of Chinese descent have been forced to undergo due to Covid-19. Statistics show that Chinese Canadian businesses in Vancouver, a city with a high population of Chinese descent inhabitants, reported a drop in commercial traffic ranging from 50 to 70 percent. Similarly, in the Greater Toronto Area, Chinese Canadian businesses reported a 30-80 percent drop in sales. Moreover, not only have commercial ventures been hit, in Montreal two Korean men were stabbed in an apparent hate-crime related to the pandemic.
However unlike in the US, the rhetoric from Canadian government officials has been anything but hostile. Trudeau’s comments in February, when compared to the divisive rhetoric emerging from Washington, indicates that those ruling Canada seem to better understand the consequences of fueling the flames of hatred As a result, widespread anti-Chinese sentiment has not been able to find a foothold in Canadian society as easily as in other nations.
Even so what is most troubling is that the anti-Chinese narrative has not only affected people of Chinese descent, it has included other victims such as Koreans and the Inuit people. This type of bigotry is even more unfathomable because in cities such as Richmond, British Columbia, where 54 percent of the population are of Chinese descent, the infection rate is less than one third the rate of other Canadian cities. In Vancouver, the infection rate is half that of the rest of the country. This is a damning sign that the ground realities do not matter once an Orwellian type of narrative is spun no matter the origin. The WHO specifically named the novel coronavirus as “Covid-19” to avoid any geographical connotations to the crisis. However, with governments like America’s adopting a contrarian policy, it is the poor immigrant and their family on the ground that has had to deal with the global fallout.