Meng Foon: Covid-19 coronavirus fear no excuse for racism

Meng Foon: Covid-19 coronavirus fear no excuse for racism

May 1, 2020

This first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on the 1 May 2020.

Since January, there have been many reports of Chinese and Asian people in New Zealand experiencing racism and xenophobia because of COVID-19. These reports continued through the level 4 lockdown. Of the more than 250 COVID-19 related complaints received by the Human Rights Commission, 34% of them are race related. 

This racism must not be normalised.  

Sadly, Kiwis of all ages are dishing out racism. Being called names by both adults and children is distressing and demoralising. This Facebook post from a mum is not uncommon: “I was called ‘Chinese coronavirus’ by a 10-year-old in the skate park just now. How nice is that?” 

Kelly Feng, Director of Asian Family Services, says many of their counselling clients are anxious because of COVID-19 discrimination. Pre-lockdown, a child who was consistently bullied ended up changing schools.  Based on similar reports, I have alerted Education leaders to watch out for this behaviour as school returns. My lobbying of government to address school bullying remains a priority, but every New Zealander must also model for our kids that COVID-19 is not an excuse for racism. 

School is only one setting. For the 400,000 workers who have returned to work, please beware of racial stereotyping. Consistent reports by Asian people of being treated differently or unfairly in public settings such as supermarkets and health, by staff and fellow patrons are concerning. 

Another popular setting for Anti-Chinese sentiment is online. Chinese New Zealanders are frequently seeing local and overseas social media content that denigrates Chinese people. Richard Leung, President of the New Zealand Chinese Association fears this content could trigger resentment locally. He understands that many are anxious because of COVID-19, but he asks for support from all New Zealanders to reject racial intolerance. 

Criticism of the Chinese government and political system should never morph into targeted racism towards Chinese people. As governments and groups demand accountability for the COVID-19 outbreak, a “blame rhetoric” will likely be a public debate for some time. Free speech and debate are pillars of a democratic society and human rights here in New Zealand. Recent comments by overseas politicians, however, are a reminder that leaders must be responsible with our words. Robust debate must should never trigger hate and vilification of any group. Politicians, please take note this election year. 

Many Chinese are frustrated because this racism and xenophobia is not new. 

Adjunct to the centuries old, systemic and traumatic racism faced by tangata whenua Māori, Chinese have also experienced our own versions of bigotry. Racial prejudice, including legislative discrimination against Chinese in New Zealand dates to the late 1800’s goldrush times.

Despite being in Aotearoa for more than 150 years, Chinese continue to be racially profiled as “perpetual migrants”. (A label that recent “non-ethnic” migrants are not burdened by, to the same degree). Since COVID-19, these racial stereotypes have led to vitriol like “go back to your country”, hurled at anyone who “looks Asian.” 

This has not prevented Chinese people from contributing to society. Having just commemorated ANZAC Day, most are probably unaware that Chinese (and Indian) soldiers were among the New Zealanders that fought in Somme, Gallipoli and Passchendaele. 

Xenophobes stereotype migrants as “takers”, but this is false. The COVID-19 response highlights that many essential workers are also migrants. For them, a high-risk frontline job often means low pay with nominal job security.

Well-known lawyer Mai Chen, Chair of Superdiversity Institute, also points out, that in a COVID-19 environment, migrants are even more susceptible to racial discrimination. She advises employers to be mindful of racial bias when making COVID-19 staffing decisions. Otherwise, employers could use loose criteria like “best fit” or “most like us” when deciding who gets rostered or “let go” -- instead of considerations like work ethic, skill and competence. Bias could cost migrants, employment or wages for an income that is in some cases, already below the average.

Lastly, the government also has a vital role. While I commend their decisive and exemplary leadership at this time, I have also highlighted to them, these and other human rights issues. 

For now, I would like to see more explicit anti-racism messaging from public figures, and awareness raising to restrain further racism of Asian people. 

Long term, I am already speaking with government about developing a National Action Plan Against Racism. Curbing racism referred to here and experienced daily, by many other groups is crucial. But other COVID-19 complaints to my office about Māori health equity and the iwi and hapū-led checkpoints, also indicates that entrenched attitudes towards Māori and Te Tiriti must also be addressed. 

If we enact the above steps, New Zealand can be a world leader in not only flattening the COVID-19 curve, but also in our efforts to eliminate racism and other forms of discrimination. 


Meng Foon is the Race Relations Commissioner. Visit the Human Rights  Commission COVID-19 website if you believe your rights have been breached or if you have been discriminated against.