As coronavirus spreads, fear of discrimination rises

The coronavirus outbreak has led to a spate of xenophobic incidents around the world. As the epidemic continues, people of East Asian origin are increasingly concerned about their safety.

On March 1, two Japanese women were walking through the Palestinian city of Ramallah. They were in the city as part of a nongovernmental aid mission. Suddenly, they were approached by two residents who started chanting "corona, corona." Sensing danger, one of the women took out her phone and pretended to start filming, in the hope this would scare them off. However, one of the residents reacted by grabbing her and pulling her hair.

Security footage of the incident went viral, triggering floods of messages condemning the attack and in support of the victims. Later that day, the person was arrested on charges of alleged assault.

Security footage captured the assault of two Japanese women in Ramallah, Palestine.

The incident is just the latest in a troubling trend: as the coronavirus spreads around the world, xenophobia seems to also be growing. Last month, the United Nations human rights chief warned of the rising tide of prejudice.

"The coronavirus epidemic has set off a disturbing wave of prejudice against people of Chinese and East Asian ethnicity," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said at a meeting in Geneva. "I call on member states to do their utmost to combat this and other forms of discrimination."

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In February, a member of a Chinese residents' association in Paris told NHK that his group was experiencing a rise in everyday discrimination.

"They're being told by their colleagues to stay away," said Sun Lay Tan. "And their children have been told not to get on elevators."

Tan called the situation very sad, saying it was as if the coronavirus had "opened Pandora's Box" on prejudice.

Sun Lay Tan, a member of a Chinese residents' association in Paris.

The discrimination has also flooded into sports. On Sunday, a group of Japanese fans was asked to leave a soccer match in the German city of Leipzig. Stewards apparently told the fans there was a chance they had been infected by the coronavirus. The host team, RB Leipzig, has since apologized, saying that asking the group to leave was "the wrong course of action."

In the US, Health Services at the University of California, Berkeley has come under fire for an Instagram post calling it "normal" to feel "fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings." Many said the post justified xenophobia, and the school later posted an apology. "We regret any misunderstanding it may have caused and have updated the language in our materials," read a follow-up post.

Discrimination has also emerged within Asia. An elementary school in Kagawa Prefecture, Japan, received a letter in the mail saying, "Don't let children with Chinese parents go to school." The municipal government has requested police to provide security at the school.

With the coronavirus outbreak showing no sign of slowing, people of East Asian origin are worried that these recent incidents are only the beginning. It is important that local and national governments implement measures to stop this troubling rise in xenophobia.