During the first week of March, I got into a taxi on my way to meet some friends in LaSalle and started to chat with the driver. I found out that he was originally from Iran, and I asked how bad the COVID-19 outbreak would be in Canada. He told me that he predicted high numbers and many deaths.
As of April 6, the total number of cases worldwide is nearly 1.3 million, and Iran alone has seen over 60,000 cases. The total deaths in Iran have reached over 3,000; the taxi driver was right.
Due to the ever-increasing number of cases and deaths, people are told to stay at home to ‘flatten the curve.’ Social distancing is a practice that hopes to slow the escalation of cases beyond what the health care system is able to handle. Limiting contact with one another for a few weeks, in theory, keeps the infection trajectory to a rate that hospitals can handle. Fear has been used by governments and the media as a tactic to get the public to understand the gravity of the situation and the importance of ‘social distancing,’ more recently known as ‘physical distancing’ due to the effects of social isolation on mental health.
However, as a Chinese-Canadian, I’m afraid to go outside not for fear of contracting the virus, but for fear of racist encounters. There have been several local examples of anti-Asian racism in the last several weeks: the racially motivated stabbings of two Korean men in Montreal, the robbing of a Korean restaurant in Montreal, and repeated vandalization of statues in Montreal’s Chinatown. The virus does not discriminate in whom it infects; on the other hand, these instances all felt far too personal. In late February, an elderly lady told me to ‘put on a damn mask’ as she walked by me in the aisle of a Jean Coutu. It was not the most devastating interaction that I could have had, but I am nonetheless afraid to leave the house sometimes, let alone go to grocery stores or pharmacies, because this pandemic, and this racism, is all really happening.
Today I thought, ‘I cannot wait for things to return to normal.’ But, I also realized that my weird feeling of guilt about being someone of Chinese origin had been around even before the COVID-19 pandemic. On the topic of COVID-19, there has been speculation that China’s reported number of cases during the outbreak may not be legitimate. After reading about this, I thought that the Chinese government might actually be covering up their actual number of cases for COVID-19, in fact, I would not find it surprising if they were. Government officials from the US as well as the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have expressed doubt and anger at the Chinese government.
Regardless of the legitimacy of China’s figures, it scares me that the rapidly growing number of cases and deaths are contributing to international tensions and tearing people apart, rather than bringing them together. Circumstances are bleak right now. People are forbidden to visit their family members who are dying in isolation. Medical professionals are burnt out and scared. Meanwhile, people are losing their jobs and their livelihoods. International politics, though important, should not be a focus right now. Instead, we should be coming together—while maintaining a two-metre distance.
I have always had conflicting feelings as a first-generation Chinese immigrant living in a Western society that spoon-feeds its people propaganda against the Chinese government. It is sometimes difficult for me to maintain an objective view of politics and cultural trends. I often forget that the government of a nation does not represent the people of that country. In those times, I am riddled with guilt about something that doesn’t have anything to do with me or my family or the majority of Chinese people. But somehow after reading one too many articles or headlines, I forget that we are not responsible. I think that it is important to keep that as a reminder to all, so that fewer innocent people get hurt. So that people, like myself or my Taxi driver, aren’t afraid to leave our houses. We are losing enough people to this pandemic; we do not need to lose more to racist and divisive ideologies.