By William Li, Contributor
On Jan. 27, somebody with too much time on their hands decided to put fake quarantine notices on a residence room door, complete with McMaster University letterhead and yellow caution tape. McMaster quickly issued a clarifying statement—no, the coronavirus had not arrived on campus, and no, the notices are not legitimate.
The stunt was deeply insensitive to those who have been and are being affected by coronavirus, though it was not unique. Somebody at Queen’s University decided to throw a coronavirus-themed party complete with surgical masks and biohazard decor. Additionally, there have been numerous reported incidents of Chinese people, and East Asians more broadly, being stereotyped as dirty and diseased.
Outrage in response to these incidents is understandably justified. The Wuhan coronavirus, which the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, has already killed hundreds and infected tens of thousands. These aforementioned incidents expose a stunning disregard for the anguish and anxiety that many ethnic Chinese folks are experiencing. Our traumas are rendered as props for amusement; our bodies are reduced to objects of stigma.
However, outrage alone is inadequate. Likewise, thoughts and prayers, while appreciated, should not be used as an excuse to avoid more substantial discourse and action. Instead, we must do more.
For one, McMaster Daily News’ coronavirus frequently asked questions would be significantly more helpful if it at least acknowledged the racism on campus. Secondly, alongside calling out racism, we must also critically examine why coronavirus is a serious issue, so that students are better able to discuss it without being dismissive or discriminatory.
Some students have suggested that media hoopla is triggering an overreaction—that, based on the numbers, coronavirus might even be less lethal than the flu. However, this unfairly dismisses legitimate concerns.
Firstly, as students, we must refrain from medical hot takes until more information becomes available. Currently, nobody knows how accurate the Chinese government’s numbers are given their history of dishonesty, such as during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, experts have cautioned that coronavirus figures are likely higher than what officials are willing, or able, to report. For example, many have questioned the low figures for Xinjiang, especially given the crowded conditions in the concentration camps holding Uyghur Muslims.
However, we should not refrain from criticizing the structural injustices that created this crisis. The silencing and subsequent death of whistleblower Li Wenliang shows how the Chinese Communist Party, with its toxic nationalism and intolerance of dissent, has created a deficient governance system that prioritizes submission to authority over justice and transparency. The anguish in China—desperate people crowding overwhelmed hospitals, others dying in the streets—makes criticism essential to ensuring government accountability for the suffering.
Understanding these circumstances—the lack of verifiable information and the structural injustices at play—provides crucial context. Both create uncertainty, which then encourages extra caution.
For example, China has led the way in travel restrictions, quarantining first Wuhan, then nearly the entire province of Hubei. Other countries soon followed: Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and dozens more have since banned arrivals from Mainland China. Although the efficacy of travel restrictions is debatable, such dramatic measures show a desire to take precautions against an unknown disease with no cure or vaccine.
On campus, some students have taken precautions as well, most visibly with wearing face masks. Unfortunately, mask wearers have since become targets for stigmatization, as if everybody wearing one is either infected with coronavirus or being overly dramatic. In reality, mask-wearing predates coronavirus, and is a versatile East Asian cultural practice, such as with K-pop inspired fashion accessories or symbols of popular resistance in Hong Kong.
During flu season (or international epidemics), wearing a mask is also basic social etiquette in keeping your germs to yourself—nobody likes being stuck in a bus or lecture hall next to somebody coughing like a trombone, mouth uncovered and germs spewing everywhere. Surgical masks also offer basic protection against liquid droplets, thus making them a sensible complement to handwashing. Next time you see somebody wearing one on campus, please be considerate of the cultural and hygienic reasons for wearing masks, instead of responding with fear or ridicule.
In the coming weeks, please be mindful of what others, especially those of us with friends or family in China, are going through. Call out racism when you see it, but don’t stop there. Take time to critically analyze the systemic problems behind the coronavirus outbreak, though refrain from conflating criticism of the Chinese government with denigrations of China or Chinese people. We should all be outraged at the public health disaster in China; we must simultaneously be supportive of fellow students who are negatively impacted. Racism and ignorance detract from these efforts, and thus we must resist efforts to divide us during times of crisis.