By Muskan Sandhu
Image Source: Philippine Canadian Inquirer
COVID-19 has been hailed as the “great equalizer” by multiple influential entities including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s team, and American popstar Madonna. This statement presents only a part of the picture as the virus in itself may not be discriminatory, but its impact is mediated by a variety of pre-existing social identity markers, such as that of race, class, and gender, that often underlie discrimination. As racism rears its ugly head in Canada in the midst of a public health crisis, ethnic media reporting makes it amply clear that the virus’s repercussions are anything but a colour-blind phenomenon crashing through a vast expanse of a socially unmarked territory.
In the context of the Vancouver Police Department’s statement that it had “seen an uptick in the number of racially-motivated crimes,” the Filipino Post, a weekly Filipino newspaper from Vancouver, pointed out that “from Canada and the U.S. to Europe and across Asia, the global coronavirus pandemic has brought with it an increase in racist attacks and microaggressions against people of Asian descent.” The Punjabi BC Round Up on Zee TV Canada reported that in response to the increase in racist hate crimes, the BC government put together a committee to act against racism.
Many Chinese media outlets in Canada denounced the role mainstream media reports may have played in fueling anti-Asian sentiment. The Global News piece on the alleged role of the United Front in exporting PPE from Canada to China was the focal point of these stories. BCbay, a Chinese newspaper from Vancouver, didn’t mince words in stating that “over the past 20 years, there have been too many mainstream articles smearing China and smearing the Chinese community in Canada.” Similarly, another Chinese newspaper from Vancouver, Van People, wrote that the “noble behaviour” of overseas Chinese people “rushing to send” PPE to China “was painted negatively by the story [in Global News], which misled and deepened the local community’s fear of Chinese Canadians, leading to racial discrimination against Chinese and Asian groups.”
This Chinese media is also replete with discussions about whether Conservative MP Derek Sloan’s remarks questioning the loyalty of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam were racist or not. The majority of Chinese outlets were quick to note that while Tam may warrant criticism, the allegations of her favouring China would not have been made if she were of a non-Chinese descent and thus were racist in nature. Chinese newspapers Sing Tao Calgary and the Dushi.ca Vancouver edition compared Sloan’s criticism of Tam with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s criticism to illustrate how one was racist and the other wasn’t. The Markham-based Iask website wrote: “Unfortunately, just like in the U.S., when a politician sees how a racist dog whistle can mobilize votes, especially votes from xenophobic groups of people, they're bound to learn from Trump and keep blowing the dog whistle. Conservative leadership candidate Derek Sloan is clearly such a politician.”
Limited Chinese news outlets, however, sympathized with Sloan. Vansky, a Chinese newspaper from Vancouver, said that: “To determine whether Sloan is actually guilty of racial discrimination, we need to understand why he brought this topic up in the first place. Is it the expression of racial superiority? Or a political-ideological attack? If there is no evidence that Sloan said this out of racial superiority, he cannot be accused of racial discrimination, at most he can only be blamed for his indifference, misjudgment, or paranoia.”
The racism brought about by the pandemic isn’t limited to just the Chinese community. The discrimination against Filipino workers at the Cargill meat plant, who contracted COVID-19, is an example of the inequality borne out of the intersection of race, class, and resident status in Canada. Philippine Canadian News, a Filipino newspaper, reported that “Many Filipino workers and residents sent a letter to the company asking that the plant be closed so that safety measures could be put in place, but no actions were taken.” This inaction eventually caused the largest coronavirus outbreak in Canada. Consequently, as reported by Philippine Canadian Inquirer, Filipino people were not allowed to enter grocery stores or banks, and worse, blamed for spreading the virus.
On Red FM 106.7 The Evening Show, a Punjabi radio show from Calgary, the host commented that the poor economic standing of the migrant workers did not allow them the freedom of choice to quit their jobs because of dangerous working conditions. A guest doctor on the show added that since “companies want to make a profit and cut costs, they don’t care about how immigrants or temporary workers live,” that is, in group housing. Another host on the show noted that, “Since the workers at the plant are temporary foreign workers, they are afraid to speak up because it may cost them their job and consequently their permanent residence.” These factors coalesced together to lead to an unfair stigmatization of the Filipino community. The virus, if anything, has laid bare the deep inequalities present in our society and remains far from being the “great equalizer.”