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I Am Not a Virus

"Less than 0.001% of Chinese people have coronavirus, yet more than 99.999% have already experienced coronaracism."

Emphasizing COVID-19’s Asian origins during a pandemic undermines the obligations we have towards our fellow citizens. (Photo: Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Emphasizing COVID-19’s Asian origins during a pandemic undermines the obligations we have towards our fellow citizens. (Photo: Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Early March my family and I travelled for spring break to Orlando. COVID-19 had not yet morphed into the crisis it has now become for Canada. At the time of booking, my concerns were not so much about catching the virus but more about getting into the United States. Since 9/11, I had not travelled to the United States as I had been placed on the US No Fly List in 2004. I decided to try this year as I had obtained a “Redress Number” from Homeland Security with the help of Prime Minister Trudeau’s communication director, Cameron Ahmad and ex-Solicitor General/Liberal MP Wayne Easter. This “Redress Number” did not remove me from the “No Fly List” but allowed some pre-screening to occur from the time the airline ticket is purchased. As a back-up, I also sent emails to my old lawyer, an investigative journalist friend, and Arif Virani my Liberal Minister of Parliament informing them of my travel plans should anything unfortunate happen. 

Nothing did happen.  The check-ins, passing through security gates and luggage counters were uneventful. No extra questions, no being pulled aside for additional questions. Not a trace of racial profiling. This was strange as after sixteen years I was used to the “building blame into my name” attitudes at international airports. Instead, what was apparent was the awkward social distancing that was occurring between non-Asians and anyone looking remotely Asian. Any passenger now who looked Asian was being questioned if they had traveled to China. Meanwhile, in the waiting lounge, President Trump was every CNN and MSNBN news-loop linking anti-Chinese rhetoric with COVID-19 – legitimizing for many acts of discrimination. The hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (“I am not a virus”) had already been created by the Asian communities living in France - responding to an escalation of racially motivated violence against them. 

Emphasizing COVID-19’s Asian origins during a pandemic undermines the obligations we have towards our fellow citizens. There can be no “building blame into a name” in times like this. COVID-19 is affecting everyone, irrespective of race - placing restrictions on what we took for granted only a couple of months ago. Toronto, as with many other cities, has invoked emergency plans. These plans detail how the City will mobilize resources during this current crisis - ensuring everyone is aware of their responsibilities and obligations to all our communities.  

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Humans notoriously showcase discrimination when threatened. I have been spat on, harassed, and lost my job in the aftermath of 9/11. Is this any different? Comedian Ken Cheng recently said, “Less than 0.001% of Chinese people have coronavirus, yet more than 99.999% have already experienced coronaracism.” I, myself, have heard people claim the latest COVID-19 outbreak was caused by Chinese “big-pharma” with their Government deliberately sending virus carriers to Europe. I have watched fake videos of Chinese women eating bat-soup promoting the narrative that Chinese people “deserve-what-they-get”. I have seen in Toronto non-Asian streetcar riders leaving their seats when an Asian rider approaches them on the streetcar. This will get worse, I suspect, once more people lose their jobs or loved ones.

Governments are considering issuing immunity certificates to monitor their populations. People making a recovery from COVID-19, with these certificates, would be allowed to get their unrestricted lives back. This gives rise to some unsettling questions. Will these immunity passports create a two-tier society? In our capitalistic world who determines the value of these immunity certificates? Will “certified individuals” broker a higher premium in the employment market for certain jobs? Will there be restrictions on travel for those with no immunity? In my mind, all this does is highlight latent possibilities for stereotyping and prejudice - not unlike what I experience with my current Homeland Security Redress Number. There must be a better and more equitable way.

Shahid Mahmood

Shahid Mahmood grew up in Pakistan. He was the editorial cartoonist for the national newspaper in Pakistan, Dawn. His work has appeared in numerous International publications including the Guardian, Huffington Post and Courrier International. Shahid’s work was viewed by world leaders at the 1997 APEC Conference, enjoyed by John F. Kennedy Jr., and managed to continuously enrage Benazir Bhutto. Shahid is internationally syndicated with the New York Times Press Syndicate; has work archived at the Museum of Contemporary History in Paris; and has been “Designated High-Profile” on the US Government's No-fly List. His web page is: http://drawnconclusions.com

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