Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

Some responses to the coronavirus reek of prejudice, not illness prevention

From cruel rumours on social media to talk of people abandoning perfectly healthy pets, this virus is bringing out the worst in some

Face masks sold out in many countries soon after news about coronavirus broke. EPA
Face masks sold out in many countries soon after news about coronavirus broke. EPA

The first time I entered what has become my new favourite restaurant in Dubai, it was abuzz with customers and conversation. Every table in the house was full, including the outdoor “garden” section, despite the chilliness of the night and the heaters not working. Cocooned in plush red blankets, my party of seven and I devoured basket after basket of dim sum, cheung fun, gyoza, and fresh and fluffy stuffed buns. The next round of diners was already waiting to be seated when we got up, satiated yet already making plans to return.

The second time I entered Royal China in Dubai International Financial Centre was two Fridays later, yet my experience could not have been more different. My parents and I made up one of two tables, our voices loud in the quiet restaurant where the chatter of happy patrons had been replaced by the echoing clatter of cutlery. The food was still fab, but the ambience was different.

Dinner number two, you see, took place a few days after the coronavirus scare had wormed its way out of Wuhan, China, and raised its head in far-flung countries all over the world, including a few in the UAE (although hundreds of people have been tested). The virus is thought to have originated from an animal source and, like Sars and Mers, causes pneumonia and can kill – but there could be many infected who develop such mild symptoms they do not know they have it.

“The most likely way of getting an infection is by inhalation, by touch and by eating something that is infected,” Dr Charles Stanford, senior director at VPS Healthcare, told The National, adding: “Let’s forget about eating things that are infected since we don’t eat bats or snakes ... That leaves inhalation and by touch. If done thoroughly and properly, washing your hands offers the best protection from any type of infection, including flu, which remains a risk at this time of the year.”

While I appreciate the push for hygiene, and even understand the rise in sales of face masks (although experts say they don’t offer 100 per cent protection), I think it’s unfair to boycott a restaurant just because it serves what has generically become known as “Chinese” food. Because the stereotypes, rumours and profiling don’t end there, do they? A Ras Al Khaimah hotel has apologised after they almost reduced a guest to tears when they did not allow her and her group of Chinese guests to check in without a blood test earlier this month.

To clarify, the government has issued no such order to businesses or retailers. On the contrary, the government has been very supportive.

Further afield, Australians of Chinese descent have reported an increase in hostility, with Rhea Liang, a surgeon and educator in Queensland, writing on Twitter: “Today a patient made jokes about not shaking my hand because of coronavirus. In front of my team. I have not left Australia. These are not sensible public health precautions. This is racism.”

The rise in xenophobic incidents targeting not just Chinese but other Asians, too, have been recorded in France, Italy, the UK and Canada. The backlash is so great in France that a hashtag, #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus – I am not a virus – has been trending among Chinese-French residents.

Animal protection groups on Facebook have been urging people in the UAE not to abandon their pets for mislaid fears that they may carriers of coronavirus. AFP
The hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus – I am not a virus – has been trending on Twitter in France. AFP

From cruel rumours and unfunny gifs being shared on WhatsApp, and talk of people in the UAE abandoning perfectly healthy pets for fear they may be transmitters, to offensive comments about consuming meats that are not typically eaten in this part of the world, this virus is clearly bringing out the worst in some people.

Were it necessary to avoid crowded places or eateries, the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention would announce this. As of now, it’s only baseless fear we’re spreading by avoiding perfectly safe restaurants. Of the cases detected here, the four afflicted members of a Chinese family from Wuhan are in a stable condition, as is the fifth male patient from China, whose own family were diagnosed as clear of infection. A sixth patient has made a full recovery, while the authorities are monitoring the two latest cases closely, with officials seeking to “assure members of the community that we are taking all adequate preventive measures”, including observation of patients’ families, relatives and people who have been around them.

Perhaps when it comes to our health, particularly in the face of a potentially deadly epidemic, one can’t be too cautious. But alienating people and abandoning establishments is certainly not the answer. After all, two hearty meals at Royal China later, my family, my unborn child and I are still alive and kicking.

Updated: February 13, 2020 04:13 PM

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