Passengers in the arrivals concourse at Heathrow airport in London. (Photo by Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images)

The real plague is racism: Why I refuse to give into xenophobia over coronavirus

As the mother of an immunocompromised child, Kiki Van Newton has more excuse than most to worry about the coronavirus outbreak. But racist reactions – and panicked border closures – aren’t the answer, she writes.

When my baby was eight weeks old she was in hospital. Each day a physiotherapist would put on a mask and gown and enter our isolation room, winding in between tubes and cords to perform chest physical therapy on my four-pound daughter, tipping her tiny body over and tapping away on her back. For the next six weeks everyone who visited our room wore a fresh white gown and surgical mask.

Seven years later my baby is now a child who performs elaborate plays, is dedicated to science experiments, can bake a cake from scratch without a recipe, and climbs too high in trees for my liking. Seven years later I am now a parent who has spent too much time in children’s wards, who knows too much about vaccinations and why there are so many types of white blood cells and how to mitigate infection risks. I’m the mother of a person with Shwachman Diamond Syndrome and severe primary immune-deficiency. I’m the mother harping on about hand sanitiser and flu shots and staying home if you’re sick.

Our whole household adheres to a strict neutropenia protocol. How we do everything is guided by constant assessments around infection risk. When I arrive home from work I strip off my clothes and throw them straight into the washing machine and immediately wash my hands. I google questions like ‘how long does a virus stay contagious on a surface for?’ and ‘best facemasks for children’. Nobody enters our house unless they’re fully vaccinated. Bottles of alcoholic hand sanitiser are dotted around the place like precious ornaments.

During September, October and November last year we gave up all group activities. Measles had made its way to our city, and we were in lockdown. My kids usually attend home education clubs most days, but for over two months there was no sport, no technology, no bushcraft or library or playgroup. For all of spring my seven year old didn’t step foot in a public building. We missed our op-shopping dates and jumperama, but we stuck to the unpopulated beaches and parks and we found fun in new places. This level of precaution might seem extreme, I thought, but so is a dead child.

When measles cases finally tapered off late last year, my life went back to a normal level of medium anxious. Now I could clear my mind and just focus on the mountain of washing that accrues when everything must be constantly washed. And then reports of a new virus started showing up in the news. Centred in Wuhan in China, the virus was reported as anything from a flu to a deadly plague. My friend messaged me, “nothing like a pandemic to help anxiety levels” *laugh cry emoji*.

“Police investigating ‘ignorant, arrogant’ coronavirus email’: Stuff, 4 February 2020

The thing about living for seven years constantly assessing infection risk is that I’ve learnt a lot about assessing infection risk. I am one of those people for whom facts – no matter how bad – are very comforting. Upon hearing about the novel coronavirus I deep-dived into research. I read the WHO reports and every news item I could find. I sifted through old data about SARS and MERS. I looked up facts about disease transmission. I read up on how countries have dealt with pandemics over the last few decades. And what I found was devastating.

Countless articles spreading misinformation and xenophobic opinions. Hundreds and hundreds of comments from people barely able to mask their racist beliefs. Conspiracy theories and hyperbolic rants. And now a government that has closed our door to foreign nationals travelling from, or transiting through, China. Against World Health Organisation advice.

This doesn’t make me feel safe. Making a decision this big contrary to scientific evidence and advice does not make me feel safe. Creating an environment where xenophobes and racists feel comfortable to express hateful views unchallenged does not make me feel safe. I am terrified of coronavirus and the harm it could cause, but I’m far more concerned about white supremacy and the immeasurable damage it causes across the globe. This novel coronavirus might be the scary new contagion, but racism has been infecting our countries for hundreds and hundreds of years. Racism truly is a plague, and it leads to the death of millions and millions of people every year.

If we really want to reduce the risks from transmissible diseases we need to look past the front page freak-outs and comments sections. We need to educate ourselves on how to keep our communities healthy. We need to be given the resources to be healthy including warm, dry houses, clean water, good food, and ready access to healthcare. We need a government who ensures that hospitals are adequately resourced, and that our medical community is well looked after. We need leaders who base big decisions on evidence. And if we want to address racism and xenophobia, then we need to name it and challenge it. We need leaders who are actively anti-racist and who uphold rights, respect and safety for all people, at all times. This is what we all deserve.

I’m hopeful, about everything. I have so much respect for the scientists and medical experts working to curb this pandemic. I have the utmost confidence that they are able to provide the best advice to minimise infection risks. I’m hopeful too, about the xenophobia and racism. When we pull back the curtain on these attitudes it gives us an opportunity to see the real damage and make plans to address it. We can strengthen our resolve to treat the issue. Like lifting the dressing on an infected wound, we can find the best salve to treat the cause and heal the pain.


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