On January 25th, the Canadian government confirmed at least three cases of the novel coronavirus in Canada. The virus, which originated in the Chinese region of Wuhan, has impacted the Chinese population with the most severity. But as Canadians have increased precautionary measures against the virus, the Chinese Canadian population has been facing increasingly xenophobic behaviour. While the disease itself is infectious, it seems as though a side effect of its outbreak has been increasing discrimination on Canadian soil. 

Breaking Down the Virus

The currently-circulating virus, which is a member of the coronavirus family, has never been encountered by health practitioners before, so it is colloquially referred to as the ‘novel’ coronavirus. Experts have determined that the virus likely originated from animal hosts, specifically from the seafood market in Huanan. 

China’s national health commission has confirmed that it is an infectious disease and that transmission can occur from human-to-human contact. Aside from this, little else is known: researchers are scrambling to understand exactly how dangerous and contagious this new disease is. With a vaccine yet to be developed to contain the outbreak, the public has been unable to adequately deal with the virus beyond increasing basic hygiene awareness. 

A healthy immune system is generally equipped with the machinery required to produce the antibodies to fend off the viral attack. For this reason, the most vulnerable segments of society with the weakest immune systems – namely the elderly and children – are at the greatest risk of contracting the virus. 

Response in Canada

Thus far, the number of confirmed cases in Canada has been significantly low. One man who is confirmed to have contracted the virus has been kept in isolation in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, while two presumptive cases have been declared in British Columbia.

Canada’s situation pales in comparison to the more than 7,000 cases and 170 deaths which have devastated mainland China. Entire regions, such as Hubei province, are under quarantine and permanent lockdown as Chinese authorities attempt to restrict the spread of the virus. 

The Canadian government has released its own statements asking the public to exercise caution and advising them against any non-essential travel to China at this time. However, some concerned Canadians have begun to take matters into their own hands and, despite their well-intended actions to protect themselves and family members against the virus, some are describing certain actions as bordering on xenophobia.

Recently, Ontario’s York District School Board sent a message to parents recommending that they monitor their children for signs of illness. Believing that these measures were inadequate, more than 8,000 parents and community members signed a petition demanding students whose families had recently travelled to China be prevented from attending school for a period of 17 days. The author of the petition was particularly concerned that the risk of the infection spreading was particularly high considering recent Chinese New Year celebrations and the fact that many individuals travel to China to meet family and friends during this time.

The School Board was quick to stop any such propositions, outlining how such assumptions and demands could be seen as racist towards an ethnic group. Dr. Neil Rau, an infectious disease expert, was also critical of the public for ignoring the advice of health professionals and perpetuating an “epidemic of fear” when the risk to Canadians still remains minimal. With an increasing number of individuals self-reporting to emergency rooms without symptoms of the virus, an overload of patients on the healthcare system could prevent doctors from prioritizing the patients who are in urgent need of treatment.

Cultural Customs and Xenophobic Backlash

A study has found that genomic strains obtained from five infected patients match 96 per cent of the coronavirus found in bats – an animal sold at the Wuhan market and traditionally consumed within the Chinese community. Scientists are unsurprised by this finding as research conducted during the SARS outbreak in 2003 had discovered that bats were carriers of coronaviruses.

Some worry, however, that this scientific discovery is being weaponized on a global scale to blame cultural customs in China as the reason for the outbreak. 

Such xenophobic rhetoric, many argue, is derived from a Western-centric perspective in which food considered to be unusual to the Western palate has been historically vilified and othered. Addressing the virus through a scientific lens will, therefore, require health care professionals to ensure that they avoid perpetuating the vilification of cultural practices. 

SARS and its Haunting Legacy

Particularly because of the devastating nature of the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, the novel coronavirus strikes a painful chord with many Canadians. SARS, an alternative form of coronavirus, also originated from the Chinese mainland. When the outbreak occurred, the disease had already spread to 37 countries – including Canada – without being detected.

At the time, the Canadian healthcare system was largely unequipped to combat this unprecedented virus. Accordingly, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has many worried that the effects could be similar. At the time, the panic which had gripped Canadians had also translated into racial animosity. 

Terri Chu, a Chinese-Canadian, recalled the difficulties that her family and friends underwent during the SARS epidemic. At the time, her parents’ restaurant in London, Ontario faced a financially difficult period as customers opted to dine elsewhere. She also recalled how passersby would yell “SARS” at her and her friends during the outbreak. This thinly-veiled racism left a severe impact on the community and perpetuated age-old stereotypes which have been used to discriminate against Chinese-Canadians. 

Using the experience gained from the SARS epidemic, Health Canada has been actively working to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. However, addressing this disease will also require health professionals to take into account the emotional toll it takes on communities that are singled out. Many are hoping that the government will monitor the spread of racist rhetoric and work to prevent it by educating the public on the virus and its effects. 

Edited by Lewie Haar.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

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