The Auckland Lantern Festival in 2019. This year the event was cancelled owing to Coronavirus. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
The Auckland Lantern Festival in 2019. This year the event was cancelled owing to Coronavirus. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyMarch 2, 2020

Apocalypse? Nah. But there is a nasty contagion on the loose in NZ: racism

The Auckland Lantern Festival in 2019. This year the event was cancelled owing to Coronavirus. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
The Auckland Lantern Festival in 2019. This year the event was cancelled owing to Coronavirus. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Plenty of people have lost their heads as Covid-19 is confirmed in New Zealand. At its most toxic, the targets are Chinese New Zealanders like me, writes Leizi Lee.

The apocalypse is upon us. I know this because when I woke up this morning, my front lawn had turned into a sea of lava. To my left and right I could hear the screams of my neighbours as they were harnessed to carts piled high with the smoking skulls of their loved ones, driven by devils with forked tails speaking in Latin. No bird life could be seen or heard. The sky was blood red. And floating by on an island made entirely out of dog ashes was the golden effigy of my cat, captured at her most flattering angle mid-clean. I always knew there was a reason she looked so perpetually smug.

I decided to close the curtain and go back to bed.

OK, so, high school writing exercise apart, Covid-19 has finally arrived in New Zealand. And the reaction of New Zealanders, especially in Auckland, has been extraordinary, not least on the part of the New Zealand Herald, which seemingly stole a doomsday movie script from the discard pile of a Hollywood studio and turned it into front page news.

From the moment the prime minister, looking suitably grave, announced we had our first patient, Auckland has led the rest of the country in “Overreaction 101”. We’ve gone from zero to full hoarder in just 24 hours.

Throngs of people, many of them Asian but also some befuddled Europeans, descended upon Pak’n’Save, Countdown, New World, Gilmours, and Taiping. For some reason no one thought to swarm Glengarry.

They cleaned out the toilet paper aisle, starting first with my beloved Kleenex 3-ply, stripped the shelves of anything remotely antibacterial or that looked like it could be used as a cleaning agent, upended boxes of tinned food and bottled water into their trolleys, and bought fresh fruit and veges like they were opening a restaurant. Nobody wore masks. The country’s supply had run out weeks ago. The irony of not wanting to catch a hugely communicable virus by willingly gathering in large groups in contained spaces seemed lost. The masses were now a singular hive mind, seeking only to bulk buy.

Parts of the mainland Chinese community in Auckland had gone into panic mode, no doubt fuelled by well-meaning relatives living in China telling them to stock up, and stock up now before things get worse and the state declares martial law and they become prisoners in their own homes.

I admit to finding much of this drama amusing. Especially since New Zealand still only has the grand total of one confirmed case. But underneath all that, there are very real fears and real lives being affected. The latest official statistics out of China, is that 80,000 people have been infected and 2,700 have died, including the doctor who first revealed the news about the virus. Wuhan is still in lockdown. Experts believe the real figures are much higher. Many countries have completely banned mainland Chinese travellers. Australia and New Zealand have added Iran to the list, though strangely enough not Italy which has reported more cases of Covid-19 than Iran per capita. Anyone care to hazard a guess as to why?

There are stories of increasingly abusive verbal attacks on anyone who looks Chinese in western countries. It’s probably not a stretch to say that these attacks could actually soon turn into physical violence, opening up a whole other set of floodgates. These are concerning times for any open-minded person, but they are particularly troubling times for the East Asian diaspora in the west. While we know there are huge differences between Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc and even massive differences between, say, Malaysian Chinese, Singaporean Chinese, Vietnamese Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kongese, New Zealand Chinese born in Aotearoa and so on, the average white westerner can’t tell us apart. The average western racist doesn’t care.

Because racism is really what I want to address. Since the first case of Covid-19 in Wuhan, I’ve seen and heard comments both in New Zealand and overseas, often couched as a joke (haha, don’t be so serious, jeez don’t you have a sense of humour?) made about Chinese people, our eating habits, our culture, our hygiene habits or lack of, etc that could be straight from the 1900s. Even PETA got in on the action, releasing a poster saying it was the Chinese habit of eating meat that caused the virus.

Racism is tiring and dehumanising, both for the racist and the target of their hatred. It robs a person of humanity, piece-by-piece, replacing it all with hate because it’s easy to hate. All it takes is a willingness to turn a blind eye to anything that doesn’t fit the narrative in your head. Didn’t get that job you really wanted? Immigrants. Went to Kmart and the line at the cashiers was too bloody long? Immigrants. Went to the doctor and had trouble understanding their accent? Immigrants. Walked down the CBD at lunchtime and someone elbowed you off the sidewalk? Immigrants. A mysterious virus makes its way to New Zealand and now the supermarkets are out of EVERYTHING? Well, fucking immigrants. Send them all home, them and their strange habits and customs, the way they look and smell and eat and don’t sound like real Kiwis. We need to look after our own at times like these. And our own isn’t them.

Sound familiar?

Here’s where I’d like this tired old story to end. Tomorrow, I’d like to scroll through news websites that give prominence to advice and research by respectable scientists and medical professionals. I’d like those in power – politicians, religious leaders and schoolteachers, to educate themselves and spread this knowledge. I’d like New Zealand to set an example to the rest of the world of what a real science-based human-centred approach, led by empathy and backed by the whole community can do. I want humanity to get its shit together because if we look around us, the planet is literally burning, Trump will most likely win another election by a landslide, and we really have bigger issues as a human race than regurgitated racism every few years.

But if that doesn’t work, I’m going to stock up on frozen dumplings and baijiu and raid Glengarry when the apocalypse we deserve finally comes. See you on the other side.

* Leizi Lee is a pseudonym.

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