The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on people around the world, but lately, the impacts have been greater and more hostile towards the Asian community. Conspiracy theories and misinformation have led people to believe that Asians are to blame for the virus and the resulting pandemic. As a result, the Asian community has been combating violence and racism in all parts of the world, including Canada. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, authorities in Vancouver have reported an upward trend of hate-related incidents in Asian communities. Vancouver police data from February 2021 reveals that anti-Asian hate crimes are showing a significant 717 per cent increase within a year.

In Ottawa, a similar trend has occurred as hate crime cases had risen from two in 2019 to 15 in 2020. Another report reveals a surge of violence in American cities as well. New York has displayed an 833 per cent increase of anti-Asian hate crimes. As Covid-19 cases rise, so do the incidents of targeted xenophobic attacks. Surprisingly, Canada has a higher number of reported hate crimes per capita than the U.S.

According to Statistics Canada, of the 43,000 Canadians who participated in the study titled, “Perceptions of personal safety among population groups designated as visible minorities in Canada during the Covid-19 pandemic,” citizens of Asian descent reported an increase of racially or ethnically motivated harassment towards their community. Moreover, of the participants that identified as Chinese, more than 30 per cent reported feeling a greater occurrence of discrimination for their race, colour, or ethnicity. 

Emerging research suggests that individuals experiencing acts of racist aggression are at risk for severe mental health illnesses. A study published in the Ethnic and Racial Studies journal indicated that Covid-19 related hate crimes towards Asians in the U.S. may lead to a mental health crisis in the long run, and has already caused a surge in anxiety and depression levels in the community.

Racist attacks targeted towards elderly Asians in Canada and the U.S. have also been on the rise. In San Francisco, a 19-year-old was charged with murder and elder abuse after he shoved an 84-year-old Thai man into the pavement. The victim died two days later from a head injury. A similar incident occurred in Vancouver, where a 92-year-old elderly Asian man with dementia was assaulted in a convenience store. According to authorities, the male suspect insulted the victim by yelling racist remarks and shoving him outside the store, where he fell and injured his head. 

While this violent assault took place in April of 2020, the Asian community has since been subject to the racial projections from the controversy of the Covid-19 outbreak simply due to the visible characteristics that classify them as a visible minority group from where the virus is known to have originated from.

The discrimination has extended to the economy of many businesses operated by Asian Canadians that have been established within society for generations. During the initial phases of the pandemic, Chinese restaurants and food markets in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) experienced a 30 to 80 per cent decrease in sales.

Harassment of Asian communities across Canada resonates from Canada’s history of anti-Asian actions. The systemic racism in Canada can be observed through policies such as The Chinese Head Tax of 1885 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, which effectively restrained and controlled immigration from China. 

Japanese internment camps during World War II, as well as the lack of post-war efforts to address the injustices committed within those camps, further exemplify Canada’s racist history with Asian populations. The prejudiced stereotypes of Asians being “disease-carrying individuals,” were present during the SARS outbreak of 2003 and have persisted into the novel coronavirus outbreak we are currently undergoing. 

UTM Sociology Professor Weiguo Zhang specializes in social demography, sociology of families, and social policy. He is currently researching discrimination within the context of Covid-19 in Ontario. Along with a group of professors from different universities, Professor Zhang is conducting a study to investigate the impacts of Covid-19 on Chinese communities and the resulting psychological effects.

Professor Zhang and his colleagues have already begun their study through two rounds of surveys, one conducted in April and the other currently ongoing within Ontario. They gather data from interviews and a cross-sectional online survey of Chinese immigrants aged 16 and older. These surveys attempt to assess the prevalence of racial discrimination against Chinese immigrants as well as any psychological distress. The results from last April’s survey revealed 11 per cent of participants had experienced discrimination.

Conducting two sets of surveys over a year has enabled Professor Zhang to understand how the pandemic has affected the Chinese community directly and how the results have changed since the emergence of the virus. He states, “we are trying to understand, in addition to psychological aspects, how do [individuals] cope?”

From his research, Professor Zhang discovered a shocking revelation: some individuals do not recognize they are victims of discrimination. He mentions that since forms of racism have become latent and normalized within society, it has been difficult for individuals to acknowledge that they have been victims of anti-Asian discrimination.

Drawing on the data gathered so far, despite not finalizing any articles yet, Professor Zhang explains that “many Chinese [individuals] actually do not recognize some of the discrimination as discrimination.” He provides an example where an elderly immigrant Chinese participant in his study was asked by a Walmart staff to remove her mask during the early stages of the pandemic. Though this instance is not as aggressive as other hate crimes that have recently occurred, it nevertheless demonstrates how individuals of Asian descent have been experiencing racism since before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic. 

However, Professor Zhang believes society can support the Asian community during these challenging conditions by raising awareness about Anti-Asian attacks, especially during Covid-19, whether through informal discussions or public campaigns. “We need to create some type of awareness so we know it happens [and] we know it is there. We shouldn’t deny these issues with the Chinese community,” says Professor Zhang. 

Another way individuals can support these communities is by holding online or social media meetings, which is an initiative Professor Zhang is trying to incorporate this year in his research and teachings. 

The city of Toronto has also launched an educational campaign in an effort to raise awareness addressing these anti-Asian attacks. The Toronto District School board (TDSB) and Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) have developed a program that introduces ways to utilize an anti-oppressive framework for education. The resource booklet introduces tips to encourage educators to address these issues in classrooms and guide students on how to dismantle this recent surge of systematic racism.

Pointing fingers in a situation such as the one we face as a society is easy to do. However, doing so has drastically hurt a community, physically, mentally, and economically. Xenophobia has ravaged the Asian community and made individuals of Asian descent feel unsafe and to blame. From small remarks to blatant targeted violence, there is a need for awareness on the current xenophobia crisis. We must put an end to these hate crimes.

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