• Tue, 25, Feb, 2020 - 5:00:AM

Being sinophobic will not protect you from the novel coronavirus

Woman on train / Vin Stratton / Unsplash

New Zealand has been sinophobic for long enough that many of us have forgotten that we are.

The attitudes disseminated by the 1881 poll tax, Yellow Peril propaganda and scores of Anti-Chinese groups have simply been integrated into modern Kiwi culture and spit out in a more palatable form — like the idea that Chinese people are unscrupulous, dirty cat-and-dog-eaters. Or that the sheer number of us apparently threaten to overrun innocent, law-abiding nations like New Zealand; overpopulating, spreading disease and polluting in our wake.

“There is about as much distinction between a European and a Chinaman as that between a Chinaman and a monkey,” Premier Richard Seddon, who was born in 1845, once said.

“Those so-called people are not human,” someone commented on a video recently published by the NZ Herald that supposedly showed someone eating a bat dish “at a Wuhan restaurant.” 

(Wang Menyun, the creator, later revealed the video was filmed in the Pacific Island of Palau in 2016.)

When the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) broke out I expected some racial tension. I did not expect the responses to be so sweeping, unsympathetic and hateful — which might have been naive of me, considering that the Chinese have always been a convenient social and political scapegoat.

An Auckland doctor was told to “go back to China,” a Rotorua councillor has faced online abuse and an anonymous email was sent to a Canterbury school that called for segregating the “Kiwi kids” from the “disgusting virus-spreaders.”

These incidents join the general discourse that China ‘deserves’ to suffer the ravages of disease because of their cuisine and/or treatment of minorities and jokes-but-not-really about avoiding foreign exchange students and any Asian-looking person in general.

With each day that I read the updates about COVID-19, it becomes clearer that people are consuming a potent mix of rational concern, irrational racism and sensationalised misinformation.

For many reasons, this paranoia-and-hatred cocktail is not only unhelpful in New Zealand, it’s downright detrimental to our community. 

Firstly, the temporary travel ban we’ve implemented, despite the WHO director-general reflecting that “such restrictions can have … little public health benefit,” is very likely to be extended while we prepare strategies and resources should the virus reach us.

At the time of writing, no cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in New Zealand — even amongst the 160-odd residents who were quarantined in Whangaparāoa after being evacuated from Wuhan. 

On the slim chance that someone in New Zealand has the novel coronavirus without authorities knowing about it, Dr. Mark Thomas says, “It would be a very strange person who'd been in China and who was sick in Auckland with a cough and a fever who didn't go and get some medical care, so I think we would be aware if there were a significant number of cases in New Zealand.”

Secondly, we should remember that the institution of the Chinese government (namely their censorship, cover-ups and questionable ethics) is vastly different to the civilian population, which in turn is different to emigrant populations. The grievances we have with the actions of a few shouldn’t be transferred — by calling the novel coronavirus ‘deserved,’ ‘karma’ or ‘revenge’ — to innocent people.

Among these innocent people are the Wuhan nurses who readily shaved their heads to better fight COVID-19, Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who tried to warn the world before succumbing to the virus, and the civilians who now continue Li’s work by advocating for free speech, the mother who consoled her daughter the only way she could — with an air hug — and the thousands quarantined on the Diamond Princess.

For those of us in New Zealand, we should practise good hygiene habits like coughing into our elbow, washing our hands regularly, avoiding touching our face (which could introduce pathogens into the respiratory system) and monitor ourselves for COVID-19 symptoms.

Seeking scientific information and practicing good hygiene is really all we can — and should — do at this point. Painting entire communities with a broad brush does not fortify our country; it weakens us. 

Being sinophobic weakens us.

With no real public health benefit, this racist discourse only isolates a community that has contributed to New Zealand’s economic, cultural and artistic landscape for well over a century. Sinophobia makes children foreigners in their own homes and incites abuse against unsuspecting members of our society.

We might have to restrict our borders for health and safety, but we do not have to close off our minds and hearts to those that are suffering — here in New Zealand, there in China, and anywhere in the world.


For COVID-19 health advice and information, contact the Healthline team at 0800 358 5453.


  • Coronavirus /
  • virus /
  • travel ban /
  • Xenophobia /
  • Racism /
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