01/29/2020 22:32 EST | Updated 01/30/2020 17:27 EST

SARS-Fuelled Racism Scarred Chinese-Canadians. It's Happening Again With Coronavirus.

Experts say we know how to handle the disease, but not the racism that comes with it.

In 2003, the SARS outbreak almost ruined the Chinese communities in Canada. 

Frank Ye felt this first-hand. Now a 23-year-old masters student at the University of Toronto, Ye was only around eight years old when the SARS outbreak happened but he already began to encounter racism at his school.

“I remember when the other kid on the playground would tell me to go away because ‘all Chinese people had SARS,’” Ye posted on Twitter.

“As a kid, I didn’t understand what racism was, being in first and second grade,” Ye told HuffPost Canada. “But thinking back to it, when kids told me to get away from them because I was Chinese, that was racism.

“At the time it made me feel excluded and made me feel invalid in who I was.”

When news of the novel coronavirus first started spreading, Asian-Canadians like Ye felt they were grappling not just with the outbreak of a new mysterious virus, but also the onslaught of racism they’ve come to expect.

In 2003, Toronto was hit especially hard by SARS. There were a total of 44 deaths, all in or around the city. As the toll rose, people started staying away from Chinese restaurants and grocery stores, CBC News reported in 2003. Businesses in Toronto’s Chinatown reported their customers dropping by 70 to 90 per cent.     

Carlos Osorio / Reuters
Pedestrians walk in the Chinatown district of downtown Toronto on Jan. 28, 2020. 

Besides the economic hit, Asian communities in Canada faced racism at personal levels. The Ontario government’s post-SARS commission found cases of Chinese workers getting terminated from their jobs and Chinese tenants unlawfully kicked out by landlords. Funeral homes cancelled victims’ funerals if they heard the body came from a hospital dealing with SARS.

Ye is worried that as the new virus makes its way through the information cycle, young kids will have to go through the same discrimination he went through. 

It doesn’t help that Ye has already seen an instance of blatant racism among people his own age. On a university Facebook group he’s a part of, someone posted a fake graphic insinuating that people in Wuhan, China — where the outbreak reportedly started — are trying to rip masks off medical staff.

 “I think this time around it’s made so much worse by social media, where anyone can say anything they want, whether it’s trying to take advantage of it for views and making these fake claims, or it’s people like this who are spreading a racist message.”

Courtesy of Frank Ye
Frank Ye is a graduate student at Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto studying public policy. He endured SARS-fuelled racism as a child.

Harris Ali, a professor of sociology at York University who has written extensively about the social impact of the SARS outbreak in Toronto, said that social media is the factor that didn’t exist then the same way it does now.

At the time of the SARS outbreak, cellphones and texting were still at a rudimentary phase. But now, social media has given people the ability to “gather virtually” — and it’s helping to amplify existing prejudice. 

In Ontario, thousands of parents in the York Region signed a petition asking the school board to keep students whose family had visited China away from schools. The school’s chair wrote back to parents, letting them know the request ran the risk of “demonstrating bias and racism.”

“That sort of response, you didn’t get it in the 2003 outbreak,” said Ali. “The racism responses were more interpersonal and individualized — shunning on the street, hate messages on telephone answering machines, Canadian-Chinese community centres facing verbal abuse.”

Watch: Coronavirus: the myths you shouldn’t believe. Story continues below.


While those responses were unwarranted and irresponsible, Ali says that the anonymity of the web means those responses can happen faster than ever.

“It has an enduring psychological impact,” he said.

Ali said that the obvious difference with the novel coronavirus outbreak is that things have improved technically — Canada was prepared to handle the virus before it even came here, the technology is more advanced, and health officials were able to mobilize quicker.

“Where the improvement has not occured is with the social impact of the disease — racism, stigmatization — those have kind of been left unaddressed,” he said.

In 2003, paranoia surrounding SARS reached such heights that Jean Chrétien, prime minister at the time, went to a restaurant in Chinatown and publicly ate soup, in an effort to ease fears.

Fred Lum/ Globe and Mail/ The Canadian Press
Jean Chrétien has tea with members of Toronto's Chinese community in response to SARS fears which hurt Chinese businesses, on Apr. 10, 2003.

“It’s a good gesture of solidarity, it’s a good gesture against the racist presumption,” said Justin Kong, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council.

“Regardless, people should not assume that just because you’re going to a Chinese restaurant or Chinese mall, that means that somehow you’re going to get infected.”

Kong said when news of the novel virus hit Canada, there was already an impending sense of fear in the Chinese-Canadian community that they’d experience what they went through with SARS. 

It didn’t take long before his fears were validated. For example, Kong came across a tweet by CTV reporter Peter Akman that showed him posing beside his barber who was wearing a face mask.

“Hopefully ALL I got today was a haircut,” Akman captioned the photo. He since apologized for the tweet. 

But Kong said the damage was already done. 

“That was just a regular person who was working, small-business owner, probably just gave this guy a haircut,” he said. “The only basis of that was because this person was Chinese and that they were wearing a mask.”

As part of the national council, Kong is working to help monitor misinformation about the disease and help keep the media on track. Seeing a journalist from an established outlet engage in racism was not a good start. 

“I think it’s important that we don’t racialize the issue, because while the virus did originate in China, anyone is susceptible to the virus.”

Kong described the community paranoia among Asian-Canadians ⁠— the fear that racist attitudes toward them will come to the forefront ⁠— as a “hallmark” of every time a disease breaks out.

I think it’s important that we don’t racialize the issue, because while the virus did originate in China, anyone is susceptible to the virus.Justin Kong, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council

But it’s not unwarranted. Ye is feeling the impact of it on his day-to-day life.

“It’s just the worry that someone says something or looks at you some way and you feel it’s because of this virus, or people are avoiding you because of who you are.”

After bearing the brunt of the social and economic impact of SARS in 2003, Chinese-Canadians were left to rebuild their lives by themselves. The Asian Canadian Labour Alliance noted in their post-SARS report that though the government had put aside $150 million to help Ontario recover from SARS, not a single cent went to Chinatown businesses or workers.

Kong thinks that, going forward, it’s all about balancing a needed policy-based response and not producing unjustified hyper-fear. Even within the community, he said, fears are fluctuating between “Oh, I’m so scared” to “this is no big deal.”

“You carry this burden where you worry about yourself, but you also worry about the well-being of your relatives who are in a worse situation than you are right now in Canada,” said Ye.

Cole Burston via Getty Images
Health officials during a press briefing on the coronavirus at Queen's Park on Jan. 27, 2020, in Toronto.

Canada should start considering how to properly deal with the social impacts of outbreaks, Ali said, especially given that with globalization, they’re more likely.

“When I interviewed the guy who discovered SARS, he said, ‘You know what’s different today? In the past you would have a disease outbreak in a village, and it was very limited because it used to burn itself out.’”

Amongst the vitriol against Chinese communities in North America, some people like to point to SARS and other diseases as proof that China is a hotbed of diseases.

“That’s nonsense,” said Ali. “If you study infectious disease and their origins, they all have their origins in an animal reservoir.” He said given the increasing rate of globalization, disease can come from livestock here as well.

Ali says outbreaks are going to keep on happening, just because of “the way we live.” 

“I’m not passing judgment on that at all, it’s just sort of a natural thing.”

With the likelihood that this will happen again, “social and psychological” factors of outbreaks should be considered as important as the technical issues — but they’re not, Ali said.

“It’s just considered softer, the social side,” he said. “It may be because it doesn’t affect the dominant group, it only affects the minority.”