Face Mask Triggers Anti-Chinese Sentiment

The novel coronavirus outbreak is still raging as the number of infections confirmed has surged above 75,000 worldwide.

In Canada, eight cases confirmed in Ontario and British Columbia are currently under control and did not cause further infections, reports show that racial profile happened in some Canadian cities.

Many Chinese communities, especially in Toronto and Vancouver, find that the fear of the virus has turned into hostility that targets them. In Toronto, some of the Chinese students shared on social media that they were abused and assaulted for wearing face masks.

In Ottawa, stigma surrounding Chinese students can also be perceived.

Lexi Zheng, a Chinese student at University of Ottawa, thinks that people overreacting about Asian people wearing face masks is making her feel uncomfortable and excluded.

Zheng had a regular cold two weeks ago. She went to class with her surgery mask on, as she usually did back in China, except she regretted her decision to wear the mask this time.

“As long as I entered the classroom, everyone was looking at me as if they have never seen anyone wearing a mask before,” said Zheng. “It was so awkward. I tried my best not to cough during the class, and that was really painful.”

Although Zheng decided only to use the masks outside of class, she has still been in situations in which people keep a distance from her when they see her wearing the mask.

She put on her face mask one day because of allergies. There was a man walking towards her from the opposite direction.

“He stared at me for a moment, then he quickly crossed the street and went on the other side of the road,” said Zheng. “I assume that he tried to avoid me because he wanted to protect himself, but I felt very upset.”

Even young children are affected by the coronavirus stigma.

Claire Lin, a recently graduated uOttawa alumnus, said the two kids of her Chinese co-worker was bullied in kindergarten.

“Her kids never went to China, but other kids were still teasing them because they are ethnically Chinese and because they wore face masks,” said Lin. “The kids felt ashamed of being Chinese.”

In fact, the xenophobic sentiment not only takes place in Canada. There are a number of reports from the U.S., Germany, France, Australia, and the UK that people of Asian descent were threatened, and attacked in the public because they were wearing face masks.

Dr. Jamal Alsharif, president of Humans for Peace Institution, has lived in China for 10 years since 2001. He said what leads people to target Asians wearing face masks is the misunderstanding between the east and the west.

“People in China love to wear masks because of [air] pollution and other things,” said Alsharif. “Population (in China) is huge so you can easily catch diseases, including seasonal flu.”

“But here in Canada, usually the healthcare providers say that it’s not necessary to wear masks if you are healthy, only sick people wear masks.”

In Ottawa, post-secondary institutions have issued official announcements in response to the aversion to Chinese students.

In an email that was sent to all students and faculty members on Jan. 31, Claude Brulé, president of Algonquin College, has denounced what he described as students ostracizing their Chinese peers.

“This type of discrimination is hurtful and unhelpful and we all have a responsibility not to spread misinformation,” said Brulé in the email. “Our college is and needs to remain a safe space, even in difficult times.”

Carleton University and uOttawa also called for a more inclusive attitude towards students from China.

Meanwhile, Chinese community in Ottawa is also taking action to help its own members.

“One of their initiatives is, if they [volunteers from the Chinese community] know that someone’s coming back from China, they would drive two cars [to the airport],” said Alsharif. “They leave the person the key to drive one of the cars, so he/she could drive back home on their own, and then the person will stay at home for a 14-day self-quarantine.”

Alsharif said these volunteers would bring food to those who quarantine themselves throughout the two-week period.


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