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Coronavirus discrimination targets Asians in Finland

Similar instances of discrimination have been reported around the world.

Jalankulkijoita suojatiellä.
Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Asians in Finland have reported instances of discrimination prompted by the novel coronavirus outbreak in China. Four people with Asian backgrounds in Finland have told Yle that they have been subjected to racist treatment since news broke about the virus.

One Chinese woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, related how one individual on a bike dubbed her "coronavirus".

For her part, China-born Diana* said that she now prefers to work remotely rather than commute to the office, because she's afraid that if she coughs it will send the entire bus into a panic. She added that at daycare, one of her colleague's children was called "a Chinese virus".

Rebekka Mikkola, vice president of the Chinese Friendship Association, said that in a closed discussion group for members, some parents have raised instances in which Chinese-background children have been bullied because of the virus.

"The parents have been told to contact their teachers and to have a chat with them to bring the situation under control. The children at least understand that this disease is not related to any [one] race of culture," Mikkola commented, adding that she had heard of other instances of unwelcome attention such as unfriendly stares directed at Asian people on the metro, while shopping or in coffee shops.

Friend's mother barred Asian acquaintance

Bi*, who moved to the Helsinki region from Vietnam, said that she receives more attention than usual because of her appearance since coronavirus has hit the headlines.

"Using a face mask in a completely normal way is now seen as really bad and suspicious," she added.

Bi also related that on one commuter train, her friend was called "a Chinese disease" and was also told that she was not welcome in Finland.

Meanwhile Diana said that her most unpleasant experience did not occur on public transportation or in a public space. She spoke of a Finnish friend whose mother forbade her from meeting Diana and from eating at Chinese restaurants.

"My friend first mentioned it as a joke, but afterwards it was painful when I realised that her mother was serious when she blocked her [from seeing me]," Diana added.

Unnecessary attention paid to Asians

One Japanese exchange student in Helsinki said that during one weekend incident, she believed that people were avoiding her on the train because of her appearance.

"On the train I met a person who seemed shocked when they saw my face and didn’t want to sit opposite me. I’d never experienced anything like that before the fear related to the spread of coronavirus," she noted.

Diana said that she is worried about the situation. "It feels like we are being more closely watched than before just because of the colour of our skin," she declared.

A global issue

The concerns expressed by the Asian community in Finland over discrimination related to the coronavirus outbreak have also been aired in other parts of the world.

Asian-background people in France have taken a stand on the issue on social media using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus). A similar hashtag has also been used in Spanish, German and in English.

Similar instances of apparent discrimination have been reported, including cases of Asian-background people who have encountered inappropriate jokes, stares or avoidance in public places following reporting on the outbreak.

In the United States a furore arose when Berkeley University in California tweeted that xenophobia was a normal response to the fear caused by the coronavirus. The post prompted an outcry, following which the institution promptly deleted the tweet.

Elsewhere, some firms have erected signs barring Chinese people from doing business on their premises. In Canada, the Chinese community have said that the discrimination they face now is similar to the treatment they received during the SARS epidemic.

Concerns about relatives

Mikkola stressed that Chinese nationals living in Finland are worried about their relatives in China. Many of them have not visited their homeland in several months, sometimes even years and they said that any information they have about the situation has mainly come from the media or relatives.

"This time the outbreak was in China but similar viruses have emerged in other parts of the world. What's most important is not for people to run scared but to focus on helping to ensure that the situation in China settles down as soon as possible," she observed.

Many organisations are currently fundraising to gather essential items to send to China, given that stores are running out of supplies. One aid shipment has already been sent off following a combined effort by NGOs in Finland and Sweden.

The Japanese exchange student at Helsinki University called on people to come together in solidarity.

"I don't want anyone to experience discrimination because they look Asian, and I don’t want anyone to hate Finland because of an unpleasant experience," she said.

* Names changed to protect individuals' identities

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