Asia Life | Society | East Asia

In Hong Kong, COVID-19 and Racism Make an Ugly Mix

In Hong Kong, the pandemic has fanned the flames of a more silent epidemic: systematic racism. 

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In Hong Kong, COVID-19 and Racism Make an Ugly Mix
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In recent weeks, Hong Kong government officials, politicians, and media outlets have faced backlash for unfairly portraying dark-skinned ethnic minorities as more likely to spread the coronavirus – as well as generally perpetuating racist narratives surrounding the pandemic that place the blame onto minority populations.

During an advisory panel on COVID-19 vaccines this week, a health official singled out ethnic minorities for failing to observe social-distancing rules, which he said were due to “cultural” as well as social reasons. The comments were made after coronavirus cases spiked in several crammed housing buildings located in the city’s more impoverished areas, where many South Asians reside.

“They have many family gatherings and like to gather with fellow countrymen,” said Raymond Ho, head of the Health Promotion Branch of the Department of Health. “They like to share food, smoke, drink alcohol and chat together. If it is without masks, the risk is high. They also need to share sanitary facilities with neighbors if the living environment is crowded.”

Last week, pro-Beijing politician Elizabeth Quat also called for a “weekend lockdown” on foreign domestic helpers to prevent them from gathering in public spaces during their holidays. The proposal was shot down by the labor secretary, who said that the suggestion may amount to discrimination. He added that foreign domestic helpers have an infection rate of just 0.055 percent – which is lower than the 0.1 percent for the general public, according to a RTHK report.

In Hong Kong, dark-skinned ethnic minorities have a long history of being framed as scapegoats for the city’s social problems. During last year’s anti-government protests, minorities were tokenized as symbols of diversity that set the city apart from those in mainland China – but also demonized as criminals after rumors circulated regarding ethnic minorities being hired to attack pro-democracy protesters.

Various anti-refugee campaigns – such as those in 2016 – have unfairly painted dark-skinned asylum seekers as criminals and illegal migrants taking advantage of local resources. Foreign domestic workers have also been accused of practicing “poor hygiene” and disrupting public order by politicians and members of the public for simply utilizing public spaces on their days off.

“For too long, we have just been easy targets. It’s exhausting and traumatic to keep having to defend ourselves, justify each time there is an isolated incident involving an ethnic minority,” said Jeffrey Andrews, a prominent social worker of Indian descent, in a Facebook post condemning the recent racist incidents and calling for more unity amongst minority communities.

In Hong Kong, ethnic minorities, excluding foreign domestic workers, account for approximately 4 percent of the population. Within this category, light-skinned minorities like Whites and East Asians are viewed relatively favorably and often receive positive discrimination. Meanwhile, dark-skinned minorities such as South and Southeast Asians – Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Filipinos, Indonesians, and Thais, which together make up about 43 percent of all Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities – bear the brunt of racism and negative stereotyping.

Such trends have not only fueled everyday racism against dark-skinned ethnic minorities, but also exacerbated racial inequalities in all spheres of life. Among the city’s ethnic minorities, South and Southeast Asians have the lowest rates of attending college, and are disproportionately more likely to face high poverty rates. In addition to being more prone to racial profiling, they’re also systematically marginalized in professional as well as educational spheres, due to entrenched language barriers resulting from the government’s failure to teach local languages to non-Chinese speakers.

As the pandemic rages on and derogatory stereotypes surrounding dark-skinned minorities continue to proliferate, community members say more needs to be done in order to combat discrimination and harassment.

In a statement responding to the health officials’ remarks, Hong Kong Unison – a local NGO advocating for ethnic minorities – has called on the administration to step up cultural sensitivity training for government officials, in addition to developing mechanisms for improving ethnic minorities’ access to health information and other resources.

“Family gatherings, eating together, drinking and smoking are not behaviors specific to (a) certain race or ethnicity. Such racialized narrative promotes negative stereotypes and isolates ethnic minorities further,” according to the statement. “Ethnic minorities should not be the scapegoat for a virus outbreak.”

Jianne Soriano, a local journalist of Filipino descent, said that there needs to be more productive channels of communication between local Chinese people and various ethnic minority groups. Media outlets must also stop reinforcing harmful stereotypes, and instead provide more platforms for ethnic minority voices, she added. At present, racial profiling in campaigns promoting social distancing is commonplace, and problematic narratives are being spread through racist content by prominent local media outlets like Apple Daily.

“Reinforcing stereotypes around ethnic minorities will cause people to treat us unfairly. It will further divide and sour the relationship between ethnic minorities and the local Chinese,” Soriano said. “Ethnic minorities are also Hong Kongers and are working just as hard to prevent getting COVID-19. Stop treating us as if we’re not Hong Kongers (and) aren’t doing the best we can.”