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Opinionista

Covid-19: Racial profiling is becoming a virus

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TKN Nuen is a recent Master of Arts graduate whose thesis examined the problematic discourse surrounding the concept of African Diaspora within the arts field. Her academic interest speaks to her broader investigation into how marginalised groups negotiate a complex yet complicit engagement in a dominant silencing space.

Given how many Italians are now affected by Covid-19, would you boycott Italian restaurants? Why does Donald Trump call it ‘the Chinese virus’ and why am I being racially profiled?

The shops are prepared for the virus. At the entrance, they either have sanitisers or wet wipes for customers to clean their hands or their trolleys before entering. I walk into one of the stores and take a few items before I head towards the pay tills. I have no mask on my face. I have no cough. While the cashier is ringing up the goods, the supervisor is speaking to her in a different language. I do not understand what they are saying until I hear the words “ching-chong” and “corona”.

When Covid-19 broke out in China in December 2019, people started to associate Asian hot spots across the globe as potential places to contract the disease. In South Africa’s case, during Chinese New Year, the traditional dragon dance that happens every year in Commissioner Street was cancelled as well as celebrations in Cyrildene in Johannesburg. To make things worse, people believe that anything related to Chinese culture, people, or food should be avoided for health safety.

Italy ranks second after China with 59,138 confirmed cases, according to the 23 March coronavirus statistics from worldometer. Are people wary of Italian restaurants as much as they are of Chinese restaurants?

The virus has become racialised. During US President Donald Trump’s debriefing speech on Covid-19, a photographer from Huffington Post captured the speech notes that showed “corona” scratched out and amended to read “Chinese virus”. As a result, the disease has become a political tool to divide and to cause friction within heterogeneous communities. Lin Songtian, the ambassador for Chinese people in South Africa, has criticised the racial term used by the US president. Despite this, before he can address present passive-aggressive attitudes towards Chinese populations living across the country, Lin has been requested to return to Beijing.

The South African government has declared the coronavirus a National State of Disaster, and has emphasised rigorous hygiene and encouraged people to work from home to prevent further disruption to the economy and minimise human contact.

Nothing has been said in regards to race and class. Asian people are stigmatised based on their supposed “Chinese” features, and therefore being carriers of the disease. 

Viral videos and photographs show South African shop shelves cleared out of sanitisers, toilet paper and low on long shelf-life food supplies. People who do not have access to sanitary facilities or who cannot afford fresh products suffer the most due to the stocking-up frenzy. Although food suppliers have tried to combat the over-buying, they have not addressed their staff members’ mistreatment towards certain customers based on their racial appearances or their masked coverage.

We should be equally afraid of people’s attitudes and responses to Covid-19 as of the virus itself. DM

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