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The Dual Pandemic: Anti-Asian Racism and COVID-19

July 13, 2021 by Shayne Wong

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019, people around the world have been affected in different ways. Young people have experienced difficulties caused by the pandemic such as struggling with education being moved fully online, isolation from social circles and family, and the loss of jobs. In addition to these, there has been a notable surge in racism, particularly anti-Asian racism, fuelled by the fact that the COVID-19 virus first spread from Wuhan, China.

When the news of the virus first began to spread globally in early 2020, as a Chinese Canadian, I would often hear both subtle and unsubtle comments and jabs about the virus. Some of the more common ones I experienced included questions on whether I had contracted the virus, if my family had it, and - of course - comments featuring the now popularized titles ‘China virus’ and ‘kung-flu.’ Anti-Asian racism is not a new phenomenon, as one student from the University of Alberta said, COVID-19 is not the cause of this, it has only legitimized and “made it seem okay to speak and act on it.”

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, racism and violence against people of Asian descent have increased and spread across the world. In some major Canadian cities the crime rates have increased by six and seven hundred percent from the previous year. Over the past year news of various attacks, crimes, and overall instances of anti-Asian racism and discrimination have become more commonplace within the news making many of Asian descent, including myself, concerned for the safety of not only them but their families and communities.

Such experiences can be traumatic with consequences including not only physical harm but also psychological harm. The University of British Columbia found that Asian Canadians between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four were more likely affected by anti-Asian racism and discrimination over the past year. Additionally, perpetrators were less likely to be from larger institutions such as police forces or banks but rather were everyday people. Although the experiences of youth are less likely to be physical attacks, as those under the age of eighteen and over the age of fifty-five have been the primary targets, they do experience significant rates of racism and discrimination online and in the media. Myself and other young people of Asian heritage have experienced repeated exposure online and in the media to discriminatory, racist, and sometimes videos of traumatizing events centred around anti-Asian sentiment.

The question of ‘where do we go from here’ is not an easy one. Addressing issues of anti-Asian racism and discrimination, particularly the effects on youth, could benefit from the use of the Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) agenda. The pillars of prevention, protection, and participation are good starting points for addressing these issues.

A study from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, which consisted of young people of Asian descent, noted education and mass media as two areas that young people identified as being key in the facilitation of safe spaces for those of Asian descent. Both areas were identified as being key in shaping narratives and perspectives among young people. Additionally, the study stressed the fact that to have a more equitable and safe society, it would not be an overnight task. This work is long-term and requires participation from Asian and non-Asian members of society.

Governments at all levels have been called to work more actively to protect people of Asian descent from continued racism, discrimination, and violence. However, this work needs to include and be done in communities as well. Multilateral collaboration and participation are needed to address, prevent, and protect individuals of Asian descent and their communities.

The surge of awareness and support seen on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram with eye-catching graphics and sentiments of support were great but have since faded from public view. The fact is that these acts have not ended just because public interest has moved onto the next topic of interest, they are still happening and still affecting people of Asian descent. Social media companies have faced scrutiny and backlash for the prevalence of such messaging on their platforms and although some actions have been taken, there continue to be calls to do better and work more actively to prevent and protect people, especially youth, from the continued racism on social media and online spaces.

This work will not be instantaneous, it will not be quick. Anti-Asian racism is deeply embedded within our society and the COVID-19 pandemic is only the most recent legitimizer for such hate. Young people in Canada and around the world are already dealing with the effects of the pandemic. For those of Asian descent, exposure to racism and discrimination is but another barrier affecting their well-being. Utilizing the YPS agenda and the pillars on prevention, protection, and participation can ensure that we have an equitable and safe society for all as we move through this pandemic.


About the author:

Shayne Wong is an M.A. candidate in peace and conflict studies at the University of Manitoba. She holds a B.A. in human rights and conflict resolution studies from the University of Winnipeg. She is a member of the Rohingya Human Rights Network team, a researcher and co-lead for the Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) programs with ISOKO Partners for Peace and Gender Equality, and a co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for YPS (CCYPS).

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