Students in York say they fear a rise in racism on campus after the first British cases of coronavirus infection were revealed to be from their university.
A York student from China, and a relative who was staying with them in non-student accommodation, were taken to hospital last week and later confirmed to be infected.
“We’ve got a large number of Chinese students here and even before the outbreak I think there was a ‘them and us’ atmosphere at college,” third year student Isabel told Socialist Worker.
“There some stuff on social media that’s quite alarming, telling students to stay away from students wearing face masks, and the like.
“The university authorities are saying the right sort of things, explaining how to avoid infections and why people shouldn’t panic about the coronavirus, but the message from the mass media does mean some students are very scared.”
Isabel said that the separation of Chinese students on campus has been encouraged by university authorities over a number of years.
“The way things are set up here makes integrating with Chinese students difficult,” she said.
“Some students think of Chinese students as ‘others’, and the university plays on that feeling.
“They treat them as a major source of revenue. The most expensive accommodation on campus is aimed at them, their courses are in a particular part of the campus and have separate canteens that serve East Asian food at inflated prices.
“And, of course, their course fees are really high.”
Martha, who also studies at York, says that anti-racists on campus have work to do.
“We plan to run stalls next week. We have to do a lot of basic explaining to undermine the myths,” she said.
“Such as telling people why lots of Chinese students wear surgical face masks on campus. It doesn’t mean they are potential carriers of the virus, or that they’ve had contact with people who are – it’s got a much longer tradition than that.
“We also want to reach out to students from East Asia. Many of them are really worried about the virus too.”
Martha is right. The biggest danger in the face of a developing virus is the spread of panic. Fear makes people reluctant to come forward if they have symptoms, and institutional fear drives managers to cover up cases in a bid to avoid “bad publicity”.
Anti-racists on campus must be quick to respond to any slurs or attacks on East Asian students.