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Media and advocacy

Diversity and compassion

By Peter Wilson AM FCPHR, National President and Chairman of the Board

The national unveiling of public sympathy and the enormous and spontaneous generosity for victims and fighters of our recent bushfires has been without precedent. Regrettably a little less than a month later, we have seen a huge reversal of such positive social empathy. I am talking about the emergence of some very nasty signs of prejudice against Chinese Australian citizens and others from that country who are visiting, studying and working here. This is a response to the corona virus, now named by the World Health Organization (WHO) as COVID-19.

That virus is still gaining traction mainly in China, which has the majority of 60,000 reported human infections that have resulted in just under 1,500 fatalities at the time of writing. The fatality rate is estimated at 2-3 per cent which is lower than the SARS outbreak in 2004-5 (10 per cent). Estimates vary from 9 to 18 months as to the time it will take to develop and deliver a vaccine that turns the tide of the COVID-19 infection.

Australian chief medical officer Brendan Murphy has said there is no current cause for concern, the situation is well contained and there is a very small chance of infection here. But to walk through our various Chinatowns in Melbourne, Sydney and other cities, and especially to gaze into their hospitality establishments during peak evening dinner times, gives a quite different impression. You could be forgiven for believing the Australian population has made other judgements about the current risk of this infection from this vicinity, to their immediate lives and wellbeing.

There’s very little evidence that anyone is eating there any time soon. Melbourne’s famous and high-profile Shark Fin House has closed its doors permanently. The owners are keeping its sister venue the Shark Fin Inn open... for now. Professor Tim Soutphommasane of the University of Sydney and former federal Race Discrimination commissioner made some cutting points in the Melbourne Age – one paragraph is worth quoting in full: “It’s not the virus that’s the biggest threat to us – it’s the viral panic. The more formidable disease going around right now is a social one,
not a biological one. And the panic is mutating into discrimination. Asian Australians, particularly Chinese, have reported a spike in racism and xenophobia. People have been vilified in shops and on public transport. There’ve been reports of Uber drivers declining to pick up passengers with Asian surnames. Asian international students have been summarily evicted from accommodation.

We need to be very careful on this front. Before the outbreak of COVID-19 many Australians were concerned about the recent military rise of China, its economic might in general, and the aggression it has shown in the South China Sea and our neighbourhood of the South Pacific. The move to “one man – one party lifetime rule”, under Chinese President Xijinping, compounded this general apprehension. While these things might be alarming to some, we must remember that Chinese Australian people have been an active, positive and vibrant part of our culture for nearly two hundred years. The Chinatown cultures and presence of Chinese Australians in our social and economic life has been a major plus for this country. Targeting these Australians unfairly as likely COVID-19 carriers inevitably leads to the racism that Soutphommasane describes.

The more worrying future is the possible shutdown and isolation of China from the rest of the world within six months. That will do no one any good. But in this global digital world it will still be clear who has treated ethnic Chinese people with equanimity, and compassion, and who hasn’t. That’s not a tiger worth grabbing by the tail. More particularly that’s neither sensible nor appropriate given the values of our nation and society.

So be alert to signs of discrimination and possibly racism in your workplace. Convene workgroups to discuss myth and reality with COVID-19 based on the facts – they aren’t hard to find. Go beyond that too, consider holding your next external work function in Chinatown, for example. Help our Chinese Australians with the same generous open heart that we have employed during the last month for our bushfire victims and firefighters. The underlying sense of decency for humanity is the same in both cases.