• Hamsini Hariharan

How Coronavirus outbreak is fuelling Sinophobia and racism

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on February 17, 2020 and can be accessed here.


You can leave China but the coronavirus follows you everywhere. At a wedding that I went to recently, there were either a lot of jokes about the coronavirus. Some people took two steps away from me when they heard that I had returned to wait out the epidemic. In my yoga class, a teacher spoke about her friend who went to China saw a monkey’s head being split so that the blood could form a delicate soup. She heard of it, so it must be true of course. People are almost disappointed when they turn to me for confirmation of their biases and I tell them that I have only faced kindness in China.

This week, a friend from Hong Kong was turned away from a hotel in Chennai because they were worried about “panicking their guests”. When I called the hotel, the manager said that his staff had refused to serve anyone from China because they were worried about “health concerns”. After rounds of frustrating conversations, Treebo finally apologized and compensated my friends for their stay. But this is not an isolated incident. On an Indigo flight last week, a traveler refused to sit next to a person from Arunachal Pradesh because they suspected the other of having the coronavirus.

Around the world, Chinese people are facing xenophobia under the guise of concerns over health. A Norwegian cruise did not allow a Chinese woman aboard even though she had lived in Canada for fifteen years. In Britain, people of Chinese origin have been assaulted and even pelted with eggs. In Italy, which declared a health emergency over the virus has seen a rise in racism with the banning of Chinese people from shops and restaurants. In America, Chinatowns are empty. In Sydney, a man died a heart attack in Chinatown because bystanders did not perform CPR on him because they were afraid of contracting the disease. In France, the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus is trending because of the rise in racist tropes in the media that feed into xenophobia. Across the world, there is a drop in businesses at Chinatowns even prompting Jeremy Corbyn to visit one in a show of solidarity. But it is not enough. This racism has clear roots in Sinophobia and can’t be easily dismissed as panic over a health crisis.

The incident with the hotel in Chennai made me frustrated because I depend on the kindness of friends, and strangers alike when I am in China. From simple to complex tasks, the people I have met in China have only exuded warmth. This week, I was ashamed that we in India, with our values of Athithi Devo Bhava, remain racist against anybody who doesn’t look like a Bollywood cutout. And my friends from Hong Kong? They’re just telling everyone that they’re from Singapore for the rest of their stay here.