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'Playing Into The Hysteria': How Racism Has 'Mobilised Fear And Hostility' Over Coronavirus

With the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus globally in the tens of thousands, experts are warning of an "echo chamber of pandemic racism" emerging in response online.

Online commentary on coronavirus has been saturated by misinformation, despite repeated warnings to only rely on information from official health authorities.

The onslaught of misinformation has not only fed into communities' fears of infectious diseases but also spawned 'uncountable opportunities' for racism and discrimination against Chinese and Asian communities.

The growing number of incidents, which has even reportedly seen Chinese people 'banned' from entering certain restaurants and bars in a number of countries, has prompted a pointed message from Asian communities: "the coronavirus is not an excuse to be racist".

Sign banning access to people from China at Trevi Bar in Rome, Italy. Image: AAP.

But it hasn't stopped.

In one instance, an Australian surgeon said a patient had made jokes about not shaking her hand because of the coronavirus.

"I have not left Australia," Rhea Liang said of the incident.

"This is not sensible public health precautions. This is racism".

In another instance, a child in Canada was reportedly cornered by students at school who wanted to "test him" for coronavirus because he was half-Asian.

"They chased him. Scared him. And made him cry," his mother Nadia Alam said on Twitter.

"It's 2020. I thought things would change by now."

'Feeding Into The Hysteria'

Tim Lo Surdo, National Co-Director of Democracy in Colour -- a grassroots racial justice advocacy group, said his organisation has also seen discrimination against Asian-Australian communities.

"People are noticing that folks might not sit next to them on the bus, or that there will be snarky comments made towards them on the streets or in public places or restaurants," Lo Surdo told 10 daily.

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According to Lo Surdo, false narratives were being used to vilify all Asian people as a health risk over their hygiene and eating habits and even to call for immigration bans.

"These small things contribute to a sense of not feeling safe just going out of your home," he explained.

Lo Surdo said there is particular concern about the impact of this racism on young people, particularly from online violence.

'Asian Australians Are Part OF What Makes Australia Australia'

Youth Advocate Yasmin Poole is also concerned about young people who are seeing that sort of discriminatory language.

"It really breaks my heart that kids are already feeling the effects of how their skin colour or what they look like -- something they can't help -- is being used to make them feel like an outsider," she told 10 daily.

Poole, who was last year named in Australia's Top 40 Under 40 most influential Asian-Australians, said she was surprised by how quickly the discourse had evolved.

"It's turned to having this broad brush targeting not only Chinese-Australians but people who are just vaguely Asian looking," she said.

Poole said while being afraid of the virus itself was "understandable" feelings of fear and loss of control make people turn to blame others.

"That can spiral into just seeing people of Asian appearance and immediately feeling hostile towards them."

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Poole said the resurgence of the phrase "yellow peril", was reminiscent of the response during the SARS outbreak when it was used to stereotype Chinese people.

"As a 21-year-old I don't want to know what yellow peril means, I don't want to live in a society where this has to happen over and over again," she said.

'An Echo Chamber OF Pandemic Racism'

Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Technology Sydney, Andrew Jakubowicz said online racism against Chinese in Australia had "magnified quite dramatically" over the last three years due to growing anti- PRC sentiments and other issues around politics and business.

"Australia does have the reputation of being the best place in the western world to be an online racist," Jakubowicz told 10 daily.

"I think the coronavirus is a very good example of the sort of opportunistic moments that organised racists look for in order to trigger fear and hostility against particular groups."

Image: Getty

Jakubowicz explained that there are three main strategies organised groups use to "mobilise fear and apprehension" against Chinese communities, starting with "saturating" the internet with racist language.

"Their desire is to normalise racist discourse to try and make it the regular face of conversation, and as that permeates society, people's whole attitude to groups begins to darken," Jakubowicz said.

"The same sort of thing happened through radio and press back in the 1930s in Germany, so those dynamics are very well known."

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The second step was one of opportunity. Jakubowicz explained this involved taking advantage of every event possible in order to create a "network of fake news" before finally aiming to drive minority groups out of "normal" internet places.

"They become so apprehensive, scared, intimidated and angry that they simply leave the discourses and that allows the racist language to continue."

"We are seeing all that happen at the moment."

The hashtag #jenesuispasunvirus (I am not a virus) trended as French-Asian communities spoke out over racism linked to coronavirus. Image: Twitter/ Lou Chengwang.
'Quite Widespread'

CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute, Dr. Andre Oboler, said where racism around coronavirus is concerned, negative comments are not coming from just one part of the community, such as far-right groups who have previously dominated this kind of discourse.

"I think this is just fear driving ordinary Australians from all sorts of different backgrounds reacting... and some of these concerns are expressed in a way that doesn't have a reasonable basis," Oboler told 10 daily.

But he said it was important the sorts of individuals and groups, who he described as "the usual suspects" aren't "given oxygen" in the media to further pedal this discourse, adding that misinformation needed to be "nipped in the bud".

Jakubowicz believes the onslaught of racist rhetoric around the coronavirus is also boosted by a lack of laws targetting racist hate speech in Australia as well as competitions between different racist groups for followers.

"There is a sort of wind up of, 'how extreme can I go in order to be more extreme than the people down the road who aren't extreme enough,'" he said.

But for Lo Surdo, the coronavirus is also a stark reminder that "this country has a very long history of Sinophobia".

"People are exploiting this and using this to justify and provide a respectable avenue to hide their racism behind.

"That's quite disgraceful and disgusting."