The Australian Human Rights Commission says about one in four people who lodged racial discrimination complaints in the past two months say they were targeted due to COVID-19.
- The Asian-Australian community faces “a compounded level of stress” caused by racism
- The Australian Human Rights Commission encourages the public to “show kindness and support” to one another
- Scott Morrison praised the Chinese community’s contribution in the fight against COVID-19
According to the latest data, seen by the ABC, in February the Commission also recorded the highest monthly number of racial discrimination complaints this financial year.
A third of February’s complaints were explicitly related to COVID-19, as were just under a quarter of complaints in March.
The commission asked that raw numbers not be published due to strict confidentiality requirements around the reporting of complaints, but said they usually received dozens of formal complaints every month.
‘I could feel it was malicious’
As the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan, many in the Asian-Australian community have reported instances of racial abuse linked to COVID-19.
Last month, Chinese international student Christine Zheng was verbally abused when wearing a mask while waiting at a tram stop in Kew, in Melbourne’s inner east.
She told the ABC she was yelled at by a stranger, who shouted “coronavirus” at her.
“I was the only person wearing the mask … I could feel it was malicious,” she said.
“I was very angry, but I didn’t know how to respond. I could only share my experience on social media.”
Indonesian migrant Rani Pramesti told the ABC she was the target of racist slurs while walking her dog on Wednesday.
Ms Pramesti said she heard a man on his bike muttering something like “walking your dog”, and when she looked at him, he yelled: “What are you looking at, you f***ing dumb gook?”
She told the ABC that it was the first time in seven years that she ever experienced this behaviour in her own neighbourhood.
“COVID-19-related racism is real and makes it very unsafe for people of Asian appearance to live day by day,” she said.
“Please be aware of when you’re associating COVID-19 especially with people of Asian appearance. Again, the virus doesn’t discriminate, but people do.”
There have also been media reports of racial assaults across the country in the wake of the pandemic, including two women being spat on in Sydney, and a Hong Kong student being punched in the face in Hobart for wearing a mask.
Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan told the ABC COVID-19-related discrimination against people of Asian backgrounds must be condemned.
National Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan said Asian-Australians should not have to endure racial slurs on top of the other stresses caused by the pandemic. (Supplied: Human Rights Comission)
“Coronavirus has nothing to do with race or nationality — and neither fear of the virus, nor frustration at the difficulties we all face, are excuses for discrimination,” he said.
“People of all backgrounds are dealing with this crisis. No group can be singled out, and we must all work collectively to defeat it.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference on Thursday afternoon praised the Chinese community’s contribution in the fight against COVID-19.
“The Chinese-Australian community did an amazing job in those early days of the spread of the coronavirus,” he said.
“They have been an early example to the rest of the country as the broader implications are now being experienced and the measures that have been taken.
“They showed all Australians back then how to do this. I want to thank them very, very much for the example they set in those early phases.
“Containing and limiting the spread of the virus that had come from China on those early days was incredibly important.”
‘Compounded level of stress’ faced by Asian-Australians
Michael Thai, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Queensland, said anti-Asian racism during the pandemic was taking a toll on the wellbeing and functioning of people in the Asian-Australian community.
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“They are experiencing a compounded level of stress, from both the stress that everyone else is feeling with regard to the coronavirus, as well as the additional stress of being racially victimised, being accused of being carriers of the coronavirus and bringing this virus to our shores,” he said.
“To deal with these stresses is a very difficult thing to do.”
Michael Thai said racism was having an impact on the psychological wellbeing of Asian-Australians. (Supplied)
Dr Thai said Asian-Australians should avoid internalising the stigma or discrimination they feel and that building a social network could reduce the psychological impact caused by racial discrimination.
“There are a lot more people out there who are understanding and compassionate will tell you you’re not the cause of the coronavirus,” he said.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of, there’s nothing to feel bad about personally.”
Leaders need to set an example
Remarks around the coronavirus by politicians have also heightened racial biases towards the Asian-Australian community, Dr Thai pointed out.
United States President Donald Trump has repeatedly called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus”.
In Australia, senator Pauline Hanson said “any attempts to attack or criticise people for referring to COVID-19 as a ‘Chinese virus’ should be pushed back on” and that “it has been common to refer to viruses with reference to the area it originated”.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), however, said in naming the disease COVID-19, they strove “to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people”.
“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatising,” WHO said.
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Dr Thai said community leaders could change “social norms around what’s acceptable or what’s not”.
“If more leaders were to speak up, then we may see fewer attacks.”
Liberal MP Gladys Liu said in a statement that she was “deeply disappointed by examples of racism within the community” but had also been “overwhelmed by stories of the community coming together and supporting each other through these tough times”.
She said she encouraged people who witnessed racism to report it to the authorities, and stressed that “racism occurs on the fringes and that racist views held by some are not the views held by the majority of our society”.
How to lodge a racial discrimination complaint
The commission said the public had little knowledge of how to make a complaint.
So, what should people do when facing racial discrimination or attacks in public?
The commission said on its website everyone in Australia could make a complaint with zero cost.
Information is available in 23 languages, including Chinese, Indonesian and Hindi.
People can call on 1300 656 419, email firstname.lastname@example.org, go online or even post it to the commission, however only written complaints are accepted.
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Commissioner Tan said all Australians had a responsibility to protect the human rights of their neighbours.
“Members of the Chinese and other Asian communities, like every Australian, are already suffering and stressed by the impact of the pandemic, and should not have to endure additional fear of discrimination, abuse or violence because of their ethnicity,” he said.
“I urge all people in Australia to show kindness, and support each other in these difficult times. We are all in this together,” he said.