Investigations

Victims of coronavirus-fuelled racism in Australia are speaking out about its impact

Lynn Ooi lives on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and was told "you do not belong here". Source: Supplied

A reporting database for anti-Asian racism in Australia during the COVID-19 outbreak has received more than 170 responses since it launched a fortnight ago, with the Human Rights Commission also seeing a spike in racial discrimination complaints.

Lynn Ooi has called the Sunshine Coast home for the past three years but recently noticed a change.

“When I go out, whether it's to a restaurant or to buy groceries, people usually don't look at me," she told SBS News, "but since the pandemic hit Australia, I have felt like it's different, whether it’s people changing directions when walking or giving me a funny look."

“I was approached by someone in public a couple of weeks ago asking me why I wasn’t wearing a face mask, even though I wasn't sick and that person wasn’t wearing a mask either.”

The advice from Australian health officials throughout the pandemic has been that wearing a face mask in public is not necessary.  

The 27-year-old pharmacist, who is originally from Malaysia, says the funny looks escalated when she was the subject of verbal abuse while visiting a local restaurant last month. 

“It was about 7pm and as I walked towards the local restaurant I heard a man yelling at me: 'You f*****g b***h, you do not belong here. What are you f*****g doing here? Go the f*** back to where you belong'."

“I quickly ran into the restaurant. It was scary because this is right around my neighbourhood and it was late, he was obviously under the influence of alcohol and making threatening gestures.”

'Go back to China'

A survey for people to report anti-Asian abuse in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic was launched a fortnight ago by the Asian Australian Alliance with the support of Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at the Per Capita think tank. So far, it has received more than 170 responses.

Activist and writer Erin Chew, the founder of the organisation, says the reporting database was created to provide those who have been the target of discriminatory behaviour to safely report incidents.

According to the data collated, 80 per cent of respondents said that they felt the incident of racism they reported was a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Lynn Ooi shares her experience of coronavirus-fuelled racism
Lynn Ooi shares her experience of coronavirus-fuelled racism

More than 60 per cent of responses said they had been subjected to a racial slur or name-calling - with examples given on the survey form including 'Go back to China' and 'Stop eating bats/dogs' - while more than 25 per cent of people reporting said they felt those responsible for the racism were making it out as a joke.

Other options on the survey form include verbal threats, with the examples 'I will report you to the police for coughing' and 'I will hunt you down', as well as incidents of 'getting spat/sneezed or coughed on'. 

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, incidents of racism against people of Asian appearance have been reported around the world. Asian-Australians have reported being publicly accused of spreading COVID-19 and abused on public transport.

Last week, a petition calling for national unity and an end to anti-Asian racism brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic was started by a group of high-profile Asian-Australians including chef Adam Liaw and writer Benjamin Law.

Ms Chew says she hopes through her survey platform, she can assist people in finding the right avenues for getting assistance. 

"What we noticed from the responses was something like 88 per cent of people did not report what happened to the police and so we can go through the more detailed responses to potentially see if they should lodge a complaint, or perhaps suggest organisations they can go for support," she said. 

“I think a difficulty for many people is that they won't lodge a complaint to the Human Rights Commission or go to the police because they are nervous or fearful of the process they may have to go through.”

The Asian Australian Alliance has plans to release its survey in simplified and traditional Chinese at the end of the week as well as Korean and Vietnamese in the near future.

Calls for a more coordinated response 

The Human Rights Commission told SBS News there has been a spike in racial discrimination complaints lodged in recent months. 

"The month of February has the highest number of complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act in this financial year, and 32 per cent of those complaints are COVID-19 related," Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan said. 

Mr Tan said the number of complaints in March has decreased with 23 per cent of those complaints being COVID-19 related, but warned the statistics from the commission is by no means comprehensive. 

“We don't see all the cases coming through, there are some that we just can't deal with," he said. 

"Ultimately, it's a system based on parties coming together and trying to conciliate differences they may have so it doesn't reflect all racial complaints or incidents. For example, there may be issues that pertain to physical violence or threats and in those cases, we encourage people to report it to the police." 

Lynn Ooi
Lynn Ooi says she wanted to speak out to let others know they are not alone.

Mr Tan is advocating for a more centralised approach to reporting racial discrimination incidents in Australia.

"We have worked with groups such as the Online Hate Prevention Institute and All Together Now and we are interested in what groups like the Asian Australian Alliance are doing as well to better understand what is going on.  

"Of course, we need to know the methodology, it has to stand up to scrutiny and we are working that through, but in my view, it would be a great idea to have a centralised agency or, or a centre that takes in all the complaints and reports that happens out in the community so we can have a clearer idea of exactly what is happening." 

"This is a time to support each other more and act kindly to each other," Mr Tan said. "We need to be able to be empathetic and find ways to support each other." 

Ms Ooi said she hopes people will learn to understand the COVID-19 pandemic is not race-based.

"Coronavirus doesn't just affect you if you're Chinese or Asian heritage, it can affect everyone regardless of ethnicity ... the virus has nothing to do with race. 

"I hope people can have more understanding and be more forgiving and kind." 

Have you been affected by discrimination related to COVID-19 and would like to share your story? Contact linevlin@protonmail.com (secure email). 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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