Media-driven panic over the spread of a new coronavirus has produced a wave of anti-Chinese racism.

The Daily Telegraph, among others, has drummed up fear by saying the virus had “pandemic potential”, warning of “panic buying” of face masks and hand sanitisers and sharing photos of “terrified travellers” from China trying to protect themselves.

The first cases emerged in Wuhan in China, after the virus leapt from animals to humans. It is suspected it originated in bats.

But there is no justification for a racist response that treats all Chinese as suspect.

Elements of the media have done exactly that. Melbourne’s Herald-Sun splashed the words “Chinese virus panda-monium” across its front page. 2GB shock-jock Ray Hadley has questioned why the government wasn’t banning all flights from China, saying up to 100,000 were arriving from the country a week.

Fake racist advice, claiming to come from health authorities, has circulated across social media. A number of them have claimed that suburbs with high Chinese-Australian populations should be avoided, including one pretending to be from the Queensland Department of Health.

The Australian government’s move to hold evacuees in the Christmas Island detention centre for quarantine—telling them they have to pay for it—is just another publicity stunt to prove it’s “tough on borders”.

And the government’s reaction is far from the humanitarian response we might have expected—although after their response to the bushfires we don’t expect much.  Their offer of “assistance” to Australian citizens in the worst affected Chinese province is to make them pay up to $1000 to fly to Christmas Island for two weeks. Not only would anyone there be far from the best medical treatment if they should actually need it, but after two weeks they will be dumped in Perth and have to find their own way home!

Another racist reaction has been to blame eating habits in China, tapping into xenophobia about Chinese customs as dirty or disgusting. Many have blamed “wet markets” in China, where live animals are sold and slaughtered. There are suggestions a wet market in Wuhan was the source of the outbreak—but some of the first infections appear to have another source.

Viruses

At the time of writing 170 people had died from the virus—all of them in China. And reports say those who have died so far have suffered from other underlying health problems. Other viruses can be far more deadly. The flu has killed 8200 in the US alone this flu season, and normally claims 400,000 lives globally each year.

The new coronavirus also appears to be less deadly than SARS. Only 2 per cent of those infected so far have died, compared to 10 per cent for the SARS virus, another form of coronavirus that spread in 2002.

Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy has advised only that people who have travelled to Hubei province, where the virus is concentrated, or had contact with a person who has the virus, are of any concern.

This has not stopped a number of schools bowing to fear, telling students who have travelled anywhere in China to remain home for two weeks. The NSW government also reversed itself to adopt the same guideline, despite saying earlier the same day that only those who had been in contact with the virus were of concern. It put the change down to “community expectations”, not medical advice.

A number of private schools as well as Sydney Catholic schools have completely banned for two weeks any students who have travelled to China. Stuartholme private boarding school in Brisbane is isolating ten Chinese students and forcing them to have daily medical checks.  

Two weeks is the maximum time it’s estimated someone could have the virus before any symptoms appear. It is not yet clear whether the virus is contagious during this incubation period. Professor Murphy has advised that this would be “extremely unusual”. As yet there is only one case, of a Chinese national who attended a conference in Germany, where it’s thought this may have happened.

The official advice, from the Commonwealth chief medical officer, is that anyone who has travelled to the Hubei province or been in contact with the virus remains home for 14 days.

Some precautions may help stop the spread of the virus. But the outbreak is no excuse for fearmongering or racism.

By James Supple

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