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Speech: Coronavirus Racism

I want to acknowledge the extraordinary work of the agencies and experts around the world who are managing the response to the coronavirus outbreak. I acknowledge in particular the loved ones of those who are no longer with us, and the medical staff caring for victims deserve our thanks. Despite the hysteria and terrible consequences of the virus, both medical and social, we can and will get through this.

The xenophobia and racism that has spread with the coronavirus is heartbreaking. For weeks now, Chinese Australians and people of colour have had to endure everything from looks, flinches and veiled comments to explicitly racist attacks and abuse. They've been told to avoid schools and universities and they feel forced to wear masks and suppress normal coughs.

In Sydney last week, a young Asian-Australian mother on a train with her child was yelled at by another passenger for 'spreading viruses'. Dr Nadia Alam, a Canadian, wrote on Twitter that her son was cornered at school by kids who wanted to test him for coronavirus—just because he is half Chinese. They chased him, scared him and made him cry. In the UK, one student was attacked for wearing a face mask, and two others had eggs thrown at them. It has come to a point where a community group in the UK is now keeping lists of racist bullying incidents in schools linked to the coronavirus.

Australian doctors have reported that patients and staff in emergency departments have been subjected to racist abuse. In Albury, Harvey Norman put up a sign which read 'No coronavirus in our mattresses as ours are Australian made'. The Herald Sun ran a headline reading 'Chinese virus pandamonium' and The Daily Telegraph's, 'China kids stay home' was equally disgusting. Health authorities in New South Wales and Queensland have had to rebut racist hoaxes targeting Chinese communities. We've seen needlessly empty seats at Chinese restaurants that would usually be busy. The situation is so bad that even Australia's Chief Medical Officer has warned about racism, saying, 'We're very concerned about xenophobia and any sort of racial profiling, which is completely abhorrent.'

None of this is a natural or excusable response to the coronavirus. It is okay to worry, but it is never okay to indulge xenophobes and fear-mongers who are exploiting this moment of panic. There is no use in pretending that the terrible incidents I have detailed are unprecedented or isolated. The abuse and attacks of this month are a reflection of the latent racism pervasive in Australia and around the world. It's latent racism that has been given licence by the reaction of governments to the virus.

Our government has quarantined some Australian citizens and permanent residents, most of whom are Chinese Australians, in a mining camp and on Christmas Island without any kind of outcry. Despite the New South Wales government offering the Richmond RAAF base the federal government and Peter Dutton insisted on Christmas Island. This last fortnight, I have tried to imagine whether the government would have swiftly engaged the apparatus of our refugee torture regime had the majority of the coronavirus victims been white. Try as I might, it's impossible to think that we would have seen this response if the virus had begun in the US or Britain. That the measure was put in place without an uproar, without people flooding the streets in protest, is a terrifying sign of just how systematic exercises in racism and xenophobia by the Australian government have become. It is only because they have spent years normalising arbitrary detention, dehumanising refugees, 'othering' migrants and communities of colour, and dog-whistling in parliament that this government can get away with locking up Chinese-Australian citizens on Christmas Island. This cannot be allowed to go on.

I extend my most heartfelt solidarity to everyone in the community affected by the coronavirus and the horrifying racism we've seen in these last few weeks.


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