Coronavirus: Chinese Australians report spike in racist incidents

People of Chinese origin say they are being unfairly linked to the viral outbreak

In this March 6, 2019, photo, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison walks into a high care accommodation room as he tours the North West Point Detention Centre on Christmas Island. Australia's government on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, defended its plan to send citizens evacuated from the epicenter of China's novel coronavirus emergency to the remote island used to banish asylum seekers and convicted criminals, despite warnings that that some Australians would prefer to stay in China. (Lukas Coch/AAP Image via AP)
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Australians of Chinese descent are reporting a significant increase in hostility directed towards them as the country confirmed its ninth case of coronavirus, with several more suspected, on Friday.

There is a significant population of people of Chinese descent or origin in Australia, accounting for more than 1.2 million of Australia's 25m citizens. In Sydney, the country’s biggest city, almost 5 per cent of the population is of Chinese descent or origin.

The complaints about fear and suspicion being directed at people Chinese appearance range from insensitive jokes to biased press coverage.

“Today a patient made jokes about not shaking my hand because of coronavirus. In front of my team," Rhea Liang, a surgeon and educator in Queensland, wrote on Twitter.

“I have not left Australia. This is not sensible public health precautions. This is racism,” she said.

In Western Australia, the supermarket giant Woolworths received a complaint that a staff member at their store in Port Hedland removed a customer who appeared to be of east Asian descent and refused entry to others, claiming it was to prevent the spread of the virus.

The witness who filed the complaint, who did not want to be named, told The National that the incident, which happened on Thursday evening, was "horrible".

“The seafarers are in town, and they come in to Woolworths for supplies. I noticed a guy of Asian descent lining up to buy his groceries when one staff member got right in his face and started yelling ‘out out… I told you you’ve got to get out’ and the guy dropped his groceries and went out,” she said.

“He had two friends with him and when one tried to enter the store the same staff member said ‘no, you guys can’t come in here’. Later I was lining up at the checkout and that staff member was telling the story to another customer, saying he had ‘kicked out those Chinese boat people, they were coughing on everything’, like he was a hero,” she said.

“I wanted to stand up for those people but I was so shocked… I filed a complaint that night.”

The witness, who is a Port Hedland local, said a Woolworths employee phoned her the following day to say that security camera footage confirmed that the staff member had been in the wrong.

A Woolworths spokesman told The National that the company was "conducting a full investigation into the incident" and would "take appropriate action to address it in line with our workplace policies".

“We want everyone to feel welcome in our stores and sincerely regret this wasn't the case on this occasion,” he said.

The novel coronavirus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December and has killed more than 200 people and infected nearly 10,000 since then. The World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a global health emergency on Thursday.

A petition calling on Australian newspapers The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun to apologise for aspects of their coverage of the outbreak had received almost 53,000 signatures on Friday.

The petition, started by Wendy Wong, noted that the Herald Sun headline "Chinese virus pandamonium", with "panda" highlighted in the misspelling of pandemonium, inappropriately identified the coronavirus virus with a race.

Ms Wong said the Daily Telegraph's use of the phrase "China kids stay home" in a headline was "downright offensive and unacceptable race discrimination" that created a "high risk of discrimination against the Aussie kids with Chinese background at school".

Both had an "inestimable negative impact" on the Chinese community, she wrote in her petition.

Meanwhile the Australian government has come under fire for plans to quarantine possibly hundreds of Australians returning from China on an island almost 2,000 kilometres north-west of the Western Australia Coast. They will be housed in an immigration detention centre on Christmas Island that was previously used for asylum seekers, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said.