SARS and accusations of racial discrimination

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With news of the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome ("SARS"), which originated in the Chinese province of Guangdong and spread from Asia to North America, people across Canada and the United States began reporting racial discimination against Asian peoples (Asian American Business Development Center 2003; Eichelberger 2007; Green 2003; Harvard School of Public Health 2003; Saulny 2003).

In Canada, Ming Tat Cheung, president of the Toronto Chinese Cultural Centre, said Chinese and non-Chinese shoppers were staying away from the city's normally bustling Chinatowns, and sales went down by up to 70 percent. This assessment, however, was difficult to confirm due to the fact that the prior percentage of shoppers who were Chinese was unknown. A columnist in the Toronto National Post, Christie Blatchford, who lives in Toronto's central Chinatown, noted that shoppers in her neighbourhood were predominantly Asian, so that a reduction in trade on the order of 70% is difficult to attribute to racist actions by non-Asians. A Reuters report on April 16 noted that Torontonians were avoiding any large assemblies of people.

Ming Tat Cheung also claimed that non-Asians had addressed SARS-related racial slurs to Chinese. Reports of SARS-related racist slurs directed at Chinese appeared in the Canadian press, but they were few and unattested (including those alleged by Ming Tat Cheung). Although some racial slurs were probably addressed to Chinese in Toronto, there is no evidence of any racial effects above the level of personal insult. For example, non-Asian parents did not withdrawn their children from school to avoid exposure to Chinese classmates, nor was there agitation for restrictions on Chinese visitors and immigrants.

Some of the excitement in the media regarding racial discrimination began when the Ontario Community & Social Services Minister John Baird coughed during a media scrum and reporters jocularly accused him of trying to give them SARS. Minister Baird replied "I enjoyed my trip to Asia". Indignant reaction to this remark came chiefly from Opposition politicians; at the time a provincial election was expected soon in Ontario.

What stereotyping there was in Canada seems to have been of possible carriers rather than of racial groups. An article in the London, Ontario Free Press on April 13, 2003 described the shunning of a white family in a small Western Ontario town because the mother and one of her daughters had recently visited Singapore.

Canadian health officials made a statement, saying that "Even though the origin of SARS is in the Far East, it is very much something that is affecting everybody. For (hostility) to be directed toward the Asian community is obviously very disturbing." The Canadian Prime Minister and other notables, made a point of inviting the press to a lunch they held at a Chinese restaurant.[1]

While it is difficult to draw conclusions regarding racial discrimination in Canada, owing to the fact that Toronto experienced a SARS epidemic, the United States provides a clear example of the links between fear of disease and ethnic stereotyping. Indeed, reports of avoidance of Asian businesses, communities, and individuals moving away from Asian people on public transportation attest to the fact that disease-related stigmatization can occur in places without infection. In New York City, Chinatown businesses suffered a dramatic drop in business after media coverage of a rumor that a local restaurant owner had died from SARS (Eichelberger 2007). Dominant discourses of risk, circulated by word of mouth and the media, painted a picture of inferior Chinese culture and irresponsible Chinese people. This characterization echoed the historic discrimination against Asian peoples as dirty and diseased, a stigma that gained significant popularity during the movement to exclude Chinese people from citizenship and immigration during the latter half of the 19th century and during several disease epidemics in the 20th century (Barde 2003; Craddock 1995; Eichelberger 2007; Kwong 1996; Lin 1998). The social responses to the SARS epidemic clearly illustrated that despite a century of advancements in epidemiological knowledge, the tendency to blame disease on immigrant and minority communities continues to prevail (Eichelberger 2007).


Asian American Business Development Center 2003 Double Impact: Chinatown Businesses Still Struggling from the Impact of September 11th Only to be Hit Again with the SARS Crisis, Vol. 2004: Asian American Business Development Center.

Barde, R. 2003 Prelude to the plague: public health and politics at America's Pacific gateway, 1899. J Hist Med Allied Sci 58(2):153-86.

Craddock, Susan 1995 Sewers and Scapegoats: Spatial Metaphors of Smallpox in Nineteenth Century San Francisco. Social Science and Medicine 41(7):957-968.

Eichelberger, L. 2007 SARS and New York's Chinatown: The politics of risk and blame during an epidemic of fear. Soc Sci Med 65(6):1284-95.

Green, Laura S. 2003 Chinatown fights back against false SARS rumors, Vol. 2004: Downtown Express.

Harvard School of Public Health 2003 Survey Finds Many Americans Avoiding International Air Travel, Asian Retailers Due to Fear of SARS, Vol. 2004: Harvard School of Public Health.

Kwong, Peter 1996 The New Chinatown. New York: Hill and Wang.

Lin, Jan 1998 Reconstructing Chinatown : ethnic enclave, global change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Saulny, Susan 2003 In Chinatown, An Outbreak Of Fear; Herb Shops and Rumors Thrive on Virus Panic. In New York Times. Pp. D1. New York.