“People Stare & Move Away”: Coronavirus & The Spread Of Xenophobia

Artwork by Refinery29 UK.
Covid-19 (coronavirus) has killed more than 3,000 people and infected more than 94,000 globally so far. On Wednesday, confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK jumped from 34 to 85. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that the threat was "likely to become more significant" and the country was "very, very well prepared" with the worst projections suggesting that up to a fifth of workers could be off at the same time.
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The virus has been the topic of global conversation, causing mass hysteria and worldwide panic after it was discovered in Wuhan in December last year. The frenzy has resulted in many people panic-buying surgical masks, antibacterial gel and stockpiling food. But a more sinister side effect is also spreading: xenophobia.
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For 33-year-old Hayley Lai, who lives in north London, this discrimination feels familiar. "I got turned away with a friend for asking to use a public toilet because they thought we had come back from China," she tells Refinery29. "The toilet was in fact in a London hospital and the man was a staff member. He looked at us and said: 'I'm sorry, we can't allow you to use the toilets'."

People need to realise that the virus may have originated from China but the virus itself is NOT Chinese.

Hayley Lai, 33
Hayley says the man pointed to a poster on the wall which read: "Anyone who has travelled or been to China in the last 14 days will be asked to leave."
"We told him we hadn't even travelled that year and he said he needed to take every precaution necessary," she adds. "We were shocked and disgusted. It didn't matter that we hadn't travelled, he was more bothered about our race so we felt completely discriminated against."
Photo Courtesy of Hayley Lai
Hayley says she's also noticed people treating her differently in public as she commutes to work. "Honestly, even getting on the Tube is uncomfortable. People stare and occasionally move away from me. It's been very weird recently, having to experience thoughts and feelings I've never felt before or worry that I'm going to be subjected to remarks from people."
While she is worried that the virus is spreading rapidly, Hayley believes the media coverage is somewhat to blame for the rise in xenophobia. "The media has definitely portrayed this virus to be associated with race, 100%. People need to realise that the virus may have originated from China but the virus itself is NOT Chinese."
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Eva Cheng, 25, who lives in Newcastle, says she was racially abused while out with friends. "A couple of weeks ago, I was out with my friends drinking in a bar in Newcastle. As I was on my way to the bathroom, a man shouted 'coronavirus' at me while his friends laughed along with him," she tells Refinery29.
Photo Courtesy of Eva Cheng
Eva says the incident left her in shock, appalled and disgraced that someone had assumed she was associated with the virus. "I haven't been back to China since 2014! It's a good thing I am strong-willed and retaliated, I essentially told them to f**k off."
She explains that since coronavirus hit the UK, she has seen a change in people's behaviour towards her. "When standing in queues, people stand further away from me. I suffer from asthma so cough quite frequently due to dust, smells and change in temperature. People think they are being subtle about taking a step back from me but it is noticeable," Eva adds.
"I'm not worried about the virus itself because I have educated myself on the facts, but I do believe the public hasn't been educated properly about coronavirus and most importantly, some people just don't know the line between humour and racism. It has fuelled the fire though."

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