In Manila, Philippines, a young woman on her daily commute makes her way through the crowded train carefully. Nearly everyone’s eyes are on her; they scrutinize her face, her complexion, and her chinky eyes. She pretends she hasn’t noticed, but someone whispers a slur in her direction.
Another young woman books a local ride-sharing app and gets asked if she is Chinese. She responds in her native Filipino to assuage the driver’s fears. Nothing about her name would have revealed any Chinese heritage, but she supposes it was her picture that the driver wound up examining.
A prestigious university in the same country releases a statement: all Chinese are required to undergo a two-week mandatory self-quarantine. It is not specified whether they mean just Chinese nationals, or anyone of Chinese heritage. Naturally, the policy is lambasted widely online for its discriminatory nature.
This case is not isolated to the Philippines, which unfortunately lies in close proximity to China. In France, the media has dubbed the outbreak, “The Yellow Peril.” In Italy, Chinese people have been spat on and ostracized regardless of whether they had been to China in the first place. In Singapore, Chinese nationals were evicted upon being quarantined.
To add to the deepening confusion and tension, there are many reports of social media propaganda coming to light as well, as anecdotes on social media now appear to have been copied and pasted across a multitude of social media accounts.
But nowhere is the chaos worse than in Wuhan, China. The whole city of 11 million people has been under quarantine since January 23, 2020, and has suffered over 94,958 cases and 724 deaths from the novel coronavirus as of today. Many citizens and journalists have risked government persecution in an attempt to report on the situation in Wuhan, which has now gotten so bad that publicly criticizing the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak can result in an arrest.
There are no victims worse off in the outbreak of the novel coronavirus more so than the people of China, but the panic and paranoia it has brought has, at best, inconvenienced anyone who vaguely looks East Asian; at worst, their lives have been ruined forever.
In the Philippines, the emergence of the virus comes at a particularly turbulent period in Filipino-Chinese relations. A long-running territorial dispute has come to a head, now that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has occupied several territories that have been legally ruled by international courts to belong to the Philippines.
The current administration has also prioritized projects and investments from the PRC, insofar as allowing certain infrastructure projects to bring in workers from China, displacing Filipino workers both in livelihood and in residence.
These complex tensions have been building up for years and have reached a tipping point with the recent virus—not just in the Philippines, but in the world over.
In other parts of the globe, tensions with Chinese nationals are fueled by the problematic enactment of the PRC’s trade and infrastructure project called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the challenges this has posed to local jobs and economies. The misbehavior of several PRC tourists in different parts of the world have also been a cause of anger for locals looking to preserve and maintain the cleanliness and orderliness of tourist stops. Lastly, the influx of Chinese investments into foreign soils – particularly in real estate – have significantly raised prices, leading to situations in which locals are no longer able to afford their own homes or properties.
But it is in these political and social challenges that many have forgotten that Chinese nationals are victims too in all of this, doomed to experience the worst of this outbreak in these turbulent times. Beyond political and economic issues, hundreds of Chinese have lost loved ones, have had their families broken apart by travel bans and lockdowns, and have struggled to find strength with each difficult day. It is over these common strands of humanity that, perhaps, the Filipinos and the Chinese—along with the rest of the world—could find some empathy.
We could all stand to have a little bit more empathy. Sure, it is fair to expect appropriate action from one’s government; certainly, the enforcement of travel bans and borders is necessary; and, yes, we will all be a little safer if we separated ourselves from each other and from crowds.
But none of this means that we should ever distance ourselves from our fellow man, from our fellow persons, and from that sense of community that benefits and protects us all.