Anti-Chinese sentiment during the 2019-nCoV outbreak
The rampant spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), first identified in Wuhan, Hubei, China, has stirred panic and an unwelcoming sentiment towards Chinese people across the world.1 Hong Kong, where a social movement triggered by an extradition bill to China has been ongoing since June, 2019, is at the forefront of this crisis. One example is Kwong Wing Catering, a pro-movement restaurant chain, which in a Facebook announcement on Jan 28, 2020, said it would only serve English or Cantonese-speaking but not Mandarin-speaking customers as a public health measure.2 The Facebook post garnered the third most supportive reactions and interactions since the Facebook page's inception in September, 2019.
Although the three languages are officially recognised in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, about 90% of the population in Hong Kong speak Cantonese. Mandarin, on the other hand, is the most common language in mainland China. Mandarin is also the official language in Taiwan. The Facebook post was then updated a day later to clarify that they welcome patrons from Taiwan, despite 16 Taiwanese people confirmed to have 2019-nCoV, as of Feb 8, 2020.3
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This anti-Chinese sentiment can be traced back to the general public's discontent with the Hong Kong Government's declining autonomy due to Beijing tightening up its control over the territory, and it was exacerbated by the government's delayed public health response, which fell behind Macau, the other SAR of China, in handling the 2019-nCoV crisis.4 As a result, some of the public health precautionary strategies are self-initiated by the community in attempts to influence the government's policies; for instance, health-care staff held a strike to press for a total border closure, which the government was reluctant to endorse. However, we should be cautious about the possibility that public health measures, however well intended, can be tainted by sentiment that is fuelled with prejudice against a certain group of people. If left unexamined, this sentiment could give rise to measures that do not target the real issue accurately and adequately, undermining the effectiveness of any interventions.
Although people generally believe they have a predictive model that can identify high-risk disease carriers, thus justifying their position to alienate anyone associated with mainland China, the reality is that virus does not discriminate based on parameters such as language, regional identity, and political position. Moreover, it can be argued that bias against a certain group of people on the basis of a limited set of probable confounded factors might lead to shame, stress, and stigma that prevent true carriers from reporting their condition to official bodies and receiving timely health-care attention. In the face of a public health crisis at a globalised scale, ethical consideration is far from being purely intellectual—it is at the core of any effective measure.