Rucira Ooi: Even hospitals are not immune to xenophobia amid a pandemic

We have to remember that it is not you against me, but us against the virus, says Rucira Ooi

Since the outbreak of covid-19 began, reports of xenophobia and racism against the Chinese population have been on the rise, especially in Western countries. 

Xenophobic and fear mongering misinformation abounds on social media, yet even on more mainstream news reports, it seems rather uncanny that even now it’s often Asian faces that are chosen to go with an alarming headline about coronavirus. It’s understandable that the media wants to portray people in masks for “visual impact,” but Asian people are not the only ones wearing masks. Pairing our faces with unsettling headlines only reinforces negative associations between Asian people and the virus, contributing to an othering of Asian people.  

In this febrile environment, we’ve heard troubling reports of attacks against people of Chinese heritage in multiple countries where Chinese people are deemed carriers of the virus at first glance. In France, an online movement of French Asians using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (translation: I am not a virus) began after one newspaper used inflammatory headlines, such as “Alerte jaune” (translation: Yellow alert) and “Le péril jaune?” (translation: The yellow peril?), complete with an image of a Chinese woman wearing a protective mask. 

In London—a city known for its diverse population—news emerged of a Singaporean student being attacked by a group of teenagers on Oxford Street. “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country,” were the words the victim reported hearing as he was attacked.

Unfortunately, even settings such as hospitals are not exempt from panic and the discrimination it brings with it. Casual racism and racial profiling take place in the NHS among healthcare professionals too. As a doctor of Chinese heritage working in the NHS, I have had my fair share of coronavirus related insults and discrimination. Since the outbreak of the virus, I have been asked:  “Have you found the cure to coronavirus yet?” and “Do you need any help with the coronavirus?”.

These may seem to be jokes, but behind every joke, there is a grain of truth. These insults have latched on and taken root at the back of my head ever since. It makes me feel as if I’m being held responsible for a virus that happened to originate from a population that shares the same racial DNA as me. Some people may say that I am being overly sensitive or overthinking these comments, but does the fault lie in my reaction or in the words that prompted it? 

We are entering a crucial time where the NHS will be in ever higher demand. Along with healthcare professionals up and down this country and across the world, I know that with the expected rise in the number of people with covid-19, I am likely to be even more exposed to the virus. In a country where the colour of my skin and my facial features are part of the minority, I can only pray that these will not be treated as if they are the “symptoms” of this coronavirus. Instead, we should ideally put our differences aside and make each other feel that we equally belong to a cohesive workforce that puts the virus at the focal point of our concerns.

During this declared pandemic, colleagues and patients should stay focused. We have to remember that it is not you against me, but it is us against the virus. As it turns out, racism and xenophobia can, unfortunately, be just as contagious an infection as the virus itself. Worse, these behaviours cannot be prevented by wearing a mask.

Rucira Ooi is an NHS Wales foundation year 1 doctor. Twitter @RuciraOoi

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Setthasorn Ooi for his help with and contributions to this article.

Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: None.