Graphic: paperbridgeee for Lausan

Life in Britain under COVID-19—white supremacy and threefold trauma

The pandemic has laid bare the contradictions of the global system and dispelled its white supremacist fantasies.

Original: 【滯英有感──談英國白人優越主義於疫症製造的三次傷害】, published in Medium

Translators: P, yehua

If you would like to be involved in our translation work, please get in touch here.

Around two months ago, I embarked on the challenge of wearing a mask for 12 consecutive hours on a flight from Hong Kong to London. It was rough; I couldn’t sleep. But as a Hongkonger, I understood it as my public duty to help prevent the spread of the virus. I observed that everyone wearing a mask looked Asian, apart from fewer than ten white people. The crew continued to welcome passengers with warm smiles. Despite the fact that everyone was equally likely to be a vector for disease, less than half of us were wearing masks as we went our separate ways out of the airport, gradually disappearing into throngs of people. That was the moment when I realised that Europe was screwed.

Before we even touched down onto the tarmac, I had already heard stories of East Asian students being harassed by local British people. At first, they had been asked whether they came from Wuhan, whether they were sick, why they were wearing masks if they weren’t sick; afterwards, people began loudly coughing and sneezing in students’ faces; then, there were incidents of people wearing masks being assaulted in the streets. To be honest, none of this surprised me; Europeans have always laughed at and even attacked Sikhs wearing turbans and Muslims wearing hijabs. The outbreak of the virus has provided many people in Europe with a “justifiable reason” for their racist attacks against East Asians.

Another reason why this was predictable is that in Hong Kong, we have seen discrimination against all those speaking in Mandarin even though, in reality, no matter what language someone speaks when they order French toast at your restaurant, they could have come from Wuhan. Sometimes, I count my blessings that people are calling it “coronavirus” here, rather than “Wuhan pneumonia.” Of course, I understand that the Chinese Communist Party has been fabricating narratives of how it is dealing with the outbreak and has tried to shift the blame for the spread of the virus. But I ultimately think the WHO’s 2015 guidance calling on people to stop using geographical origins to name diseases is very reasonable. In these times, I support any measures that aim to reduce white people’s hatred of yellow-skinned, East Asian people.

The outbreak of the virus has provided many people in Europe with a ‘justifiable reason’ for their racist attacks against Asians.

When my friends studying abroad tell me about the stress and helplessness they have been experiencing, I tell them I understand. I also think that this is a particular kind of anxiety that only Hongkongers currently living in Europe or the United States, who previously experienced the trauma of SARS as well as the ongoing oppression of the CCP, can understand. Perhaps we were oblivious then, but thanks to the efforts of those who came before us, even under Carrie Lam’s incompetent bureaucracy and in spite of our impossibly dense city and geographical proximity to the origin of the virus, the number of COVID-19 related deaths remains much lower in Hong Kong than in European and North American countries. I often say that medics like Dr. Joanna Tse (謝婉雯) are Hong Kong’s guardian angels; the experience we have accumulated thanks to their brave sacrifices is cherished by Hongkongers. Moreover, when we consider Hong Kong’s corrupt political system, we can quite easily understand how the CCP has managed to hold sway over the WHO. So when the WHO, a so-called “international” organization that has long alienated Taiwan, told us to “not be afraid,” we tell Tedros Adhanom: “WHO cares?”

But I am immediately reminded of the white people who don’t wear masks in Hong Kong, who think they know better than the rest of us. They often think that when it comes to medical science and hygiene practices, the West is miles ahead: “How is it possible that there are lessons to learned from East Asia? The novel coronavirus is nothing more than the common flu. There’s no need to panic!” That’s their mentality and how they justify strutting around in public without the slightest shame while everyone else around them is wearing a mask; if anything, they carry themselves with an air of arrogance and a sneering sense of superiority that conveys the following message in no uncertain terms: “You Hongkongers are so naive, conservative, unscientific.” And we shouldn’t be surprised. White tourists who visit temples half-naked during the summer never see themselves as trampling on and disrespecting other people’s cultures. Instead, they will demand that locals adopt their more “civilized”, open culture for their own enjoyment. This is precisely what the pandemic has revealed in astounding clarity—white supremacy.

Imagine this: in Europe and the United States, these people are the people we are surrounded by. The virus has fanned the flames of racism, and racism has in turn exacerbated the spread of the virus. Over the last few months, Hongkongers living here not only had to combat the spread of the virus, but have also had to confront white supremacist perspectives that have persistently attempted to “re-educate” us in our lifestyle choices. As it is also flu season here, many people are coughing in public, often without covering their mouths. But if a yellow-skinned person so much as clears their throat, it is a completely different story. Some of my friends have joked that they should probably hold in their coughs to avoid being beaten up. We know we should avoid unnecessary outings and try our best to look for hygiene products. On the other hand, we saw tens of thousands of people fill up the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff for a Stereophonics gig, not a single one of whom had worn a mask.

A friend complained to me about their white husband continuing to go out for pub crawls, visiting four or five pubs a night. My three British housemates have been sharing coronavirus memes every day; they find the situation very funny. But when I shared a news report from the Guardian about how asymptomatic carriers are more likely to infect others, the WhatsApp group fell silent. I came to the realization that due to the relative political and economic stability of Europe and the US, it is very difficult to make the general public aware of an impending crisis. People carry on with their lives, tricking themselves into thinking that everything is normal. To see businesses carrying on as usual is even scarier and more hopeless than to see everyone in masks. We are just like the Japanese people who are still raising awareness of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. After the government decided to turn the city into a tourist destination by holding the first leg of the Olympics torch relay there, a disaster state of mind seems barely permissable in a regime bent on ensuring that “business as usual” continues to be the highest priority.

Some of my friends joked that they should probably hold in their coughs to avoid being beaten up.

Then came Boris Johnson, Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, proposing a policy of developing “herd immunity” in the absence of a vaccine—in other words, “survival of the fittest.” The word “herd” usually refers to a band of animals. It is an apt term for a fundamentally dehumanizing policy. In reality, under the austerity policies of the Conservative Party, the NHS has been decimated: Since 2010, 60 hospitals have been forced to shutter or to lower their capacity, rendering the already vulnerable sector exceedingly ill-prepared for the pandemic. Cloaked in the language of scientific guidance, “herd immunity” is little more than saying “we can’t do anything.”

There are countless articles criticising Johnson; I won’t repeat their arguments here. Rather, I want to situate this policy in Britain’s broader political situation. Don’t forget: the Conservatives were democratically voted into power twice, meaning Johnson may well represent the political views of the majority of British people today. First, in the 2016 Brexit referendum, British voters had voted to leave, all the while the country reverberated with the slogan “Great Britain, great again.” Last year, in the December General Election, Johnson presented himself as the one who would “get Brexit done”, leading to a sweeping victory. On a certain level, this rejection of a coordinated global health effort to contain the pandemic in favour of a “herd immunity” policy is nothing more than an extension of the Brexit mentality, emerging out of an ideology that fundamentally opposes international cooperation and coexistence. In rejecting other countries’ approach that relied on a priority to curb the spread of the virus, Britain’s stance in the midst of this hypermobile, globalised world is akin to that of the white people in Hong Kong who won’t wear a mask—doing things their own way, wilfully indifferent to the consequences of their actions.

At the same time, there is the subtext of wanting to overtake other nations. While the global economy is forced to a standstill, the UK, in its attempt to protect its GDP, has not even suspended classes. If the economy still has not recovered by the winter months, but Britain has managed to develop herd immunity, it would present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “make Britain’s economy great again.” Even though just two days later, Johnson started calling on people to avoid unnecessary outings and—even without the government’s announcement—many universities decided to suspend classes, the policy of “herd immunity” has remained. Yesterday, I received a text message from the government, saying that people with symptoms should not go to the clinic or the hospital, nor would they be tested—they should simply stay at home and self-isolate. People should only call 111 (the NHS helpline) if they have serious symptoms.

Britain’s stance in the midst of this hypermobile, globalised world is akin to that of the white people in Hong Kong who won’t wear a mask—doing things their own way, wilfully indifferent to the consequences of their actions.

It is for this reason that I say Hongkongers in the UK face threefold trauma: First, we have to deal with the pressure brought about by the virus. Then, we face white supremacists’ questioning of our experiences and live in fear of violent assault. Finally, we are subjected to a right-wing government’s dubious health policies that are stubbornly at odds with that of the rest of the world. This almost means it is impossible for us to combat the virus and its fallout while living in Britain. Containment is a public matter that requires every one of us to pitch in. Even if you are able to stay at home and stockpile food, your actions as an individual will not be enough to contain a pandemic—you are simply withdrawing from the world. As for everyone else, they appear to be wagering their life on whether they can develop immunity to the disease.

But let’s look again at that massive crowd at the Stereophonics gig. It is likely that Britain’s outbreak will be more explosive and deadly than that of Italy, who was already late to implement a lockdown. So I totally understand why I have friends who want to go back to Hong Kong. Allow me to be a bit morbid: If I have to die, my last words will probably be in Cantonese—how would these white British nurses ever understand them? What perplexes me is how Hong Kong’s so-called prodigy (才子, in reference to columnist Chip Tsao) blamed those studying abroad for trying to come back home, implying that those who chose to flee were cowards would be laughed at by elite universities once they came back to the UK.

In the face of a general public with so little hygiene awareness and an incompetent, hands-off government, what else can Hong Kong students do? Why can’t Hongkongers be the ones to laugh at those “elites” for not wearing masks? What’s the point in forcing themselves to stay? So that Churchill will confer upon them a medal for their bravery? If this prodigy’s English is so good, then why doesn’t he do something practical by convincing the white people in Central to put on masks, rather than writing a letter in English to ridicule fleeing students? With fortitude and bravado like this, why not come to England and brave the virus yourself?

What I care about is not whether students will be looked down upon when they return to the UK, but whether—as residents of a country that has not taken adequate protective measures—they should go back to Hong Kong and increase the risk of transmission there. And for those who have left, when will they able to come back? Britain’s “herd immunity” policy has all but guaranteed that this virus will be around for a long time. In other words, only once the population has been vaccinated will foreigners be able to safely come to the UK again.

Nonetheless, I am still worried about the situation in the short term. Apart from being sure that there will be a serious and deadly outbreak in the UK, given that Johnson’s policies are even more ridiculous than those of Carrie Lam, I am also certain that people’s daily and economic lives will undergo massive changes while Sinophobia will only worsen. This is not, as some Hongkongers would like to imagine, the kind of politically correct “anti-China” sentiment in which everyone would start hating the Chinese Communist Party, but rather a white supremacist, “whatever, you all look the same to me,” brand of anti-Chinese racism. If you think that you can explain how to differentiate between Mainland Chinese people and Hong Kong people to white supremacist hooligans in Britain, I must congratulate you: you’re that much closer to being able to go up to dirty cops and school them on how to properly use their batons.

Of course, this is a pessimistic view, but if I were to end this article on a positive note, it would be that this pandemic has proven to be an extremely important lesson in the effects of globalization. Apart from showing the contradictions of this global system, it has also dispelled many of its fantasies. At least at this moment, many are still surprised that even in the UK and the US, people are literally fighting over toilet paper. Even when Hong Kong had shortages, no one resorted to throwing punches (though some people did try to rob tissue paper).

We may have blindly worshipped the West once, but now is the time to reflect.