The yellow peril revisited: the impact of SARS on Chinese and Southeast Asian Communities

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Author: Carrianne Leung
Date: Spring-Summer 2008
From: Resources for Feminist Research(Vol. 33, Issue 1-2)
Publisher: O.I.S.E.
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,211 words

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News of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) first hit Canada in early March 2003. For the duration of the spring and into the summer, extensive media coverage with headlines like "U.N. warns of worldwide threat from killer ailment," and lack of access to accurate information contributed to a climate of fear, panic, and siege mentality in Toronto. During the months of March to June, Chinese and Southeast/East Asian communities were doubly burdened, fearing for their own health and well-being, and bearing the stigma of this disease on themselves and their communities. The "crisis" made particular groups and their transnational mobility hyper visible as news reports literally traced the origins and routes of the conflated virus/migrant. The regulation of mobility as revealed through the experiences of racialized bodies in this project show a mapping through race. The narratives in this report indicate that the city, and to a larger scale, the nation, are racialized spaces.

The following is an excerpt from the report "Yellow Peril Revisited: The Impact of SARS on Chinese and Southeast Asian Communities," coordinated by the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC), an advocacy group for Chinese Canadians, and Solutions Research, a research consulting company which lent its expertise. The report was written in 2004. During the crisis, CCNC National and Toronto chapters were the first groups to speak out against the racist backlash that followed the onset of the crisis, while all levels of government were reluctant to acknowledge or intervene in the social effects of SARS. Another initiative called the Community Coalition Concerned with SARS coordinated support lines, public education forums for Chinese-speaking people as well as challenged the Toronto Sun for running a racist SARS cartoon during the crisis.

The hysteria surrounding SARS evoked a number of racist backlashes against the Chinese and other Southeast Asian communities. CCNC, alarmed by the events and hoping to stop such occurrences from happening again, applied for project funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage to gather and document some of the social effects on communities. This report illustrates that Chinese and Filipina Canadians were racially profiled through media and state discourses of SARS. It attempts to tease out some of the complexities of how this disease became constructed as an issue of race, and how targeted communities experienced this crisis within an analysis of interlocking oppressions. The intent of the report is threefold. One objective is to document our communities' experiences so that we may better understand how racism operates during a moment of moral panic, with the understanding that these experiences are also gender- and class-based. The other objective is to give an opportunity for people within the defined community to voice their concerns. This was conducted through interviews and focus groups with volunteer participants and community organization representatives. The people interviewed were solicited through postings by community organizations, electronic forums, word-of-mouth and invitation. Throughout the barrage of media reporting on SARS, very few media outlets addressed the social alienation, discrimination, racist practices that Southeast/East Asian communities experienced during this time. The personal narratives belie the broad impact that the SARS crisis had on these communities. The report's interviews were drawn from two groups. One group included those people who voluntarily responded to our call for participants. The other group included community leaders and front line staff in community organizations who supported affected individuals. Finally, based on the data collected, we developed a list of strategies to help prevent this from future occurrence.

This report is not an exhaustive investigation of the issues experienced by our communities that resulted from the racialization of SARS. Rather, it is a broad outline of some of the adverse effects and an illustration of the wide impact this racialization has had on Chinese and Southeast/East Asian communities. Time and resources did not permit us to widen the study to include the effects of this racialization on East and Southeast Asian communities across the nation. Respondents in this project are drawn mainly from Toronto, where Chinese and Southeast/Asian communities were most affected. SARS was named a "crisis" in the context of public health, but this report alerts us to the fact that a social crisis accompanied it. This "social crisis," at its core, is constituted through racist ideology and, unlike SARS, its effects still linger on many levels.

History Matters....

Historically, Chinese communities were referred often as the "Yellow Peril," comparing the presence of Chinese people to that of the plague. Chinese settlements and expansions were regarded with the same hysteria as an infectious disease spreading across Canada. A Commissioner reported to the House of Commons in 1885 that Vancouver's Chinatown was an "ulcer," "lodged like a piece of wood in the tissues of the human body, which unless treated must cause disease in the places around it and ultimately the whole body" (Anderson, p. 81). (1) In this statement, the city stands in as an allegory for the human body while Chinatown is the disease, the foreign substance threatening to engulf and destroy the whole body. Governmental officials and newspapers often mentioned disease and filth when referring to Chinatowns. Many containment campaigns were conducted in the name of "sanitation reform." These state strategies ensured regular interventions into the public and private spaces of Chinatown. In the mid-1890s, the Vancouver municipal council designated "Chinatown" as an official entity in the medical officers' health rounds and health committee reports. Chinatown was listed as a category along with "sewerage," "slaughter houses" and "pig ranches" (Anderson, p. 84). The perception of Chinese Canadians, their communities, and Chinatowns as a problem of public health and national security is a long established one. It is important to refer to this history in studying the racialization of SARS, as the contemporary rhetoric of SARS echoes very clearly the historical discourses that attempted to contain, regulate and prevent the inclusion of Chinese Canadians and other racialized bodies in Canada.

Alienation, Discrimination and Harassment

Our respondents listed various ways in which they felt they were victims of alienation, discrimination and harassment during the SARS crisis. Their narratives indicate that racism took on many manifestations. From feelings of isolation to acts of harassment, respondents described the general climate. Respondents discussed experiences of being ostracized. Chinese, Southeast and East Asian people were shunned in various spaces including schools, workplaces, public transportation.

Public transport:

   Every time someone on the subway coughed, if they were out of my
   sightlines, I would pray that it was a white person. I felt as if
   all the e/se Asians in the car cast their eyes down at the same
   time, when this happens. Then I am infuriated that if it was a
   white person people felt safe. And if it was an Asian person they
   would be seen as filthy and diseased. During the SARS ordeal, it
   felt like white people (& others too, but most of all white
   people) had good coughs, good lungs, good breath. And Asians,
   especially Chinese people, looked hunched over, diseased, dirty,
   and unsophisticated. This is how I felt like people were being seen.

      A lot of people avoided Chinese people. I know there were a lot of
   experiences regarding the subway. If you sneeze or cough, you could
   empty the train!

      I did take the public transportation and the drivers did ask me
   whether I am Chinese. I just said that I was Canadian. Why did they
   ask? What did they need to know?

Work place:

   At work, my co-workers tried to stay a distance from me. Some even
   wore masks.

      I work in a medical building and during SARS, I happened to be
   in the hallway where there was a slight traffic jam with other Asians
   present. A white man walks by and immediately pulls his jacket up to
   cover half his face.

      People blamed the Chinese. Even my patient asked me if I'm from
   Hong Kong and told me that's where SARS comes from. He's not saying
   it in an offensive way but he is bringing up the question.

      I heard staff making inappropriate comments about different client
   groups (the non-English clients). Comments such as: "As far as
   I am concerned, the whole community should be locked up," Or "I
   think China was making bio-weapons and SARS is just one virus that

Some respondents described what it felt like to look for employment during the months of SARS.

   I find it so hard to get a job in Canada as it is. This is because I
   am Chinese and an immigrant and everyone wants "Canadian experience."
   A friend of mine really felt the difference before and after SARS.
   Before, he got lots of interviews, and after, he wasn't even getting
   called back.

      A neighbour of mine is an engineer. He got interviewed for a job
   before SARS. He was offered a job before the outbreak and he
   negotiated to start at a later date but then SARS hit and after that,
   his job offer was suddenly withdrawn.


   When I dropped my kids to school, I heard parents talking about SARS
   spreading everywhere. When I tried to ask them about the situation,
   these parents just kept silent and nobody wanted to talk to me. They
   pretended they didn't hear my question. After that, I waited for my
   kids far away in the playground and left quickly after picking them
   up everyday.

       My kid's teacher told him that he was not allowed to bring
   certain kinds of food to school and advised not to share with

      In my kid's school, there were some people from other communities
   who told their kids to avoid playing with Asian kids and also to wear
   a mask to school.

      My son moved to Canada from China last year and I postponed
   enrolling him in school until the fall because I didn't want to see
   him go through a hard time.

Public spaces:

The daily fear of being publicly shunned was very stressful on communities. They expressed feelings of fear, shame, anger, and depression. Even when racist acts did not occur, respondents described being braced for it to happen at any time, any place. Respondents spoke of ways they tried to minimize the risks of being targeted, by limiting their mobility or trying not to cough or exhibit any symptoms that may be perceived to be related to SARS in public.

   I definitely experienced a subjective feeling that I was being
   scrutinized. This may sound funny, but it was not when I felt I
   could not cough in public no matter how much my throat tickled

In some instances, the targeting of Chinese and Southeast/East Asian people took more overt forms.

   I was visiting a friend at her condo and we were sitting in the lobby
   when someone banged on the door to be let in. Our backs were to the
   door but I could see her in the reflection of the mirror. She pointed
   to her temples as if to say we are stupid. Then she yelled, "Open the
   door, you idiot." My friend got up to help her but I told her she had
   called us idiots. We did not let her in. When she did enter the
   foyer, I told her, "If you want someone to help you, do not call them
   an idiot," to which she responded, " Go back to your own country and
   stop transporting diseases here."

      Gay Asian men didn't go out to the bathhouses or any events
   because they didn't want to deal with the discrimination or bashing.
   So for those few months, everyone stayed away and kept to themselves.

In April 2003, the media reported the link of SARS cases with the Filipino Canadian community. Regarding the portrayal of the Bukas-Loob Sa Diyos Covenant group, one respondent states,

   There was a stereotyping of Filipino people with that reporting. The
   portrayal really worked on the stereotype of us being fanatics or
   something. The group got represented as if they were a cult. This
   kind of representation enabled the public to define who they thought
   was ally or an enemy. In that situation, we felt we didn't belong

Besides the general social hostility experienced in public spaces, respondents also felt they were targeted in specific sectors. For instance, the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto assisted people who lost their housing at that time. The Executive Director, Avvy Go said,

   At the clinic, we heard many cases where landlords wanted to get
   rid of Chinese tenants.

      In one case, white landlords kicked out a woman because her
   husband was coming to join her from China. Another Chinese Canadian
   woman living outside of Toronto was asked to move even though she had
   never been to Hong Kong or China.

The clinic also discovered that staff at the Immigration and Refugee Board insisted on wearing faces masks during hearings concerning claimants of Chinese and other Asian claimants.

   These claimants were individuals who had been in Canada for at
   least a year because it took that long for the case to come before
   the IRB and there were no other precautions taken--wearing the
   masks--in non-Asian claimants' hearings.

For some, discrimination took place at international borders as the case with this woman and her parents.

   When my parents were going to enter Canada in April 2003, the
   officer put her mask and glove on immediately when she heard that
   my parents had came from China a day ago. She didn't let them in
   because of the SARS outbreak. She was too scared so that she maybe
   thought that all Chinese people might have SARS. Her bias is that
   you Chinese are spreading SARS. My parents had to stay at a hotel
   in Buffalo and they suffered a lot, physically and mentally.

Another respondent tried to make arrangements for her friends who were visiting from China.

   I tried to get a hotel for a friend who was coming from Shenzhen. I
   remember two hotels specifically asked where my friend was coming
   from. When I said China, they said they were not accepting guests
   from China.

According to some respondents, the stigma from SARS still lingers, connecting the racism which emerged during the SARS crisis to larger attitudes towards Chinese and Southeast/East Asians in Canada.

   It's not just SARS; it's something that is always there. For
   example, in my office, there is a coworker who refuses to eat at
   Chinese restaurants. She says they are dirty. Racism is always
   there and systemic racism also.

There were not many clear policies and guidelines regarding SARS, especially during the early period of the crisis. However, it is apparent from respondents' experiences that Canadians of Chinese and East Asian descent and those arriving from China and other destinations in Asia, were scrutinized and subjected to a set of rules that did not apply to other travelers and Canadians. These narratives demonstrate that there are differential entitlements and accesses to public space and mobility within these spaces. The nation-space is demarcated and performed through the border, sifting bodies according to racial markers and bringing up questions of (non)belonging and citizenship.


Large decreases in revenue also translated into job loss. The "Alternative Proposal," a joint community effort put forth by Chinese Canadian, Filipino Canadian and other advocacy groups stated:

   When business goes down, these workers are the first to go without
   much warning and little compensation. The harsh reality is that
   many employers disregard their obligations under employment
   standards legislation, while the workers are ineligible for EI
   benefits even under the relaxed rules.

Service Workers:

The Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic saw many clients who had suddenly been laid off. Many of those affected were non-unionized workers, some of whom had no immigration status in Canada. Facing multiple forms of oppression, women were particularly vulnerable.

   The clients that came to the legal clinic at that time reported a
   lot of job loss because restaurants in Chinatown were laying off,
   and in some cases SARS was used as the cause.

      For example, a client was pregnant and her employer told her to
   stay home for her own protection, but without pay.

      We have also heard from many workers of Chinese descent who had
   been terminated or were told to stay home because of perceived fear
   from their non-Asian colleagues.

Respondents described the insecurity faced by many Chinese and Southeast Asian people at the time.

   At work, my husband's workload was reduced; normally he had 60
   hours per week. After SARS, it dropped down to only 30 hours.
   Therefore, it affected our living. I was so worried that my husband
   would lose his job. It caused many people to lose their jobs. My
   husband was laid off in June because there was no business in the
   restaurant he worked at. There were less than 10 customers per
   night. People felt perplexed about the future; they did not know
   how to survive in the future since there was such an economic
   drawback. Lots of people lost their jobs and their lives were quite
   tough after SARS.

The Clinic further contends that the many service workers who were laid off from restaurants, hotels and other service industries were left without adequate compensation from unemployment insurance or other sources. In many cases, poorly enforced labour laws, coupled with a lack of compensation, left many workers in desperate situations. Even more vulnerable were undocumented workers.

   While they were out of a job, they had no access to unemployment
   insurance or other governmental benefits. They also dared not
   complain to the authorities when their rights were being violated.

This loss of employment further exacerbated the situation of already marginalized members of our communities. These workers faced multiple oppressions as they tried to negotiate their lives within systemically racist structures. The SARS crisis was only one moment in the daily marginalization that many people experience in this country.

Health Professionals:

For nurses, being on the front lines of battling SARS was a confusing and sometimes frightening period. Avvy Go pointed out that while discrimination was occurring against people of Asian descent, Chinese and Filipino nurses, doctors and health care workers were working hard under tremendous stress to stem the disease. Nursing is one of the few professions where Asians, particularly those of Chinese and Filipino descent, are proportionally represented racially and over-represented by women. She states,

   It is not a coincidence that the two nurses and doctor who died
   from SARS were persons of either Chinese or Filipino descent.

Regulations were ever-changing, giving cues that the governments were scrambling to coordinate a response. Nurses, doctors and other health care professionals took personal risks everyday to continue to provide their services to patients. A nurse shares her experience:

   Initially, we were really in a great mystery because no one knew
   what was going on, the managers were going into one meeting and
   then another with new regulations for confinement each time. The
   infectious control division asked us to isolate everyone, do the
   gown and gloves and one hour later, they would change their minds.
   Every 2 or 3 hours, the Ministry of Health would give new

Front line staff was largely credited with containing the disease even as the infrastructures that they worked within were lacking. The federal and provincial coordinating efforts and the Ontario public health care apparatus have been widely criticized for being fragmented and unprepared in dealing with SARS. Recently, the Campbell commission, appointed to investigate the SARS crisis, issued a detailed report that justified the criticism and pointed to the inadequacy of the federal and provincial strategy in addressing SARS. Health care workers continued to do their jobs and to accommodate new directives under incredibly trying circumstances.

   A lot of us were afraid. Everyone was scared to touch the elevators
   buttons, to close the door and touch the door knob. Everyone was
   getting paranoid. One of the symptoms was a high fever, and the
   nurses would think maybe they had SARS. We were sometimes panicked
   because in the early period, we didn't always know what was going

The Ontario Nurses Association recently supported a lawsuit on behalf of 30 nurses and their families who contacted SARS on the job. They maintain the Ontario government is responsible because the government instituted workplace safety precautions that were inadequate and did not properly protect the nurses from SARS. Their statements include:

   In addition to mandating that health care workers comply with
   inadequate precautions, the nurses claim the Ontario government
   failed to properly enforce occupational health and safety standards
   in hospitals, as required by the Occupational Health and Safety

      The nurses also claim the government breached their Charter of
   Rights and Freedoms right to "life, liberty and security of the
   person," because of the harm to their health.

      The political and economic interest rather than the well being of
   the citizens was the priority of the government resulting in
   devastating impact on the health care sector and the front line

For Chinese, Filipina and other Southeast Asian nurses, both the stigma of SARS as an Asian disease, and working on the front lines, caused them great isolation. A nurse from Scarborough Grace Hospital told us:

   Most of my colleagues were angry because they felt so isolated; no
   one wanted to come in contact with you. I heard people didn't even
   want to drive past the hospital! Taxi drivers wouldn't stop at the
   hospital entrance and dropped us off a distance from it. Even
   coming to work was hard!

Health facilities with a large Chinese clientele became stigmatized as a "SARS facility."

   It seriously impacted on our agency; we were "accused" of having
   SARS by other "mainstream" long term care facility staff. Staff who
   worked in other long term care facilities was harassed for working
   here as well.

      As a health care institution providing care to Chinese Canadians,
   there was a perception that we had SARS cases. While we are no
   longer associated with SARS, the discrimination is still there.
   Recently, a group of English speaking residents moved back to the
   facility that they were transferred from. Some of the families of
   these residents never accepted us and never showed any appreciation
   for the quality care that we provided. Their attitudes were
   condescending and disrespectful.

Another respondent who works for a public-funded health institute indicated how the racial bias demonstrated during this period also became a systemic issue in the workplace:

   I must say, some of my colleagues were admirable, dedicated, kind
   and accountable, but some of my colleagues exhibited unacceptable
   and racist attitudes. One of our roles at work was to contact
   clients to inform them about quarantine. One evening, during our
   assignment allocation time, none of the staff were willing to take
   on a file with clients who only speak XX language. I do not speak
   XX language, but I offered to take the file because I felt that it
   was totally unacceptable for publicly funded health care staff to
   behave this way. This is against the human rights code and
   professional practice standards. But the story did not end there.
   While I was lining up to get the XX language file, the staff in
   front of me picked up her file and then said to the manager, "This
   file is full of Chinese names. I don't speak Chinese." Then she
   turned to me and said, "You speak Chinese, don't you?" I said,
   "Yes, I do. I can take this file if you like. Would you take the XX
   language file then?" "No." she said. So I ended up with both files.
   Despite the availability of language interpretation services, this
   staff refused to take on any non-English files; in fact the whole
   group of them refused. I felt wounded because I witnessed racism
   but I did not have the energy to challenge the managers for
   allowing it to go on; I did not have the energy to say anything to
   this staff; and I knew that if I said more, I would have put myself
   in a very vulnerable position. Yet, there did not seem to be much
   that I could do because the racism was not directed at me.

A respondent points to the lack of support and understanding for staff during and in the aftermath of SARS:

   Yes, I would say that SARS did have an impact on me, not only
   because of my Chinese heritage, but because I also worked in the
   response to SARS. The whole experience was very exhausting for me,
   not only because we were dealing with a public crisis, but because
   I witnessed so much unfairness, oppression and prejudice embedded
   in the processes of the response everywhere--our different levels
   of government, health institutions, communities, the public....
   Personally, I feel that I still have not fully recovered; I feel
   the need for healing and I am working on that, on my own, without
   any support anywhere. Where do we go to talk about how the SARS
   crisis traumatized us? At our work, it was briefly addressed and
   then it was passed on and overcome by other more urgent issues. I
   talked to some other colleagues; they said that similar things--"I
   am not sure if we could ever recover from SARS"--but we are all
   saying this based on different reasons.

Live-In Caregivers:

One of the most vulnerable groups in our communities during this period was live-in caregivers. Of the total number of live-in caregivers in Canada, 70-80 per cent is from the Philippines. Most are employed to serve the needs of elderly people and children. SARS greatly impacted all aspects of their well-being. Coco Diaz from Intercede, an advocacy organization on behalf of live-in caregivers stated:

   There were many cases of unfair termination of employment during
   SARS. They were dismissed as if they were already carriers of the
   disease. Employees were most concerned with the elderly or children
   in the family and yet showed little concern for their employees.

      Live-in Caregivers are not given the status of being professionals
   as in the case of doctors or nurses and yet they are also very

Diaz further states that it can be said that live-in caregivers also were in the front lines of the fights against SARS and yet were not heralded by the media or public opinion. They also put themselves at risk to fulfill the requirements of their jobs. Unlike healthcare professionals, they have no guaranteed rights, protection or recourse as workers. For example, a live-in caregiver, who cared for an elderly person, contracted SARS by taking her employer to the hospital for health services. This woman spent three months in a coma and had to undergo many more months of rehabilitative care.

In April, unfair dismissals intensified after the media reported the links of several new SARS cases to members of a Filipino Catholic group. Aside from the dismissals, some employers tried to control the movement of their employees.

   There are those who only go out for their day off. There became an
   awareness of this religious group and employers were not even sure
   if their caregiver is involved or if they are in any way connected
   to them. Immediately, some employers started to think that just
   because the workers are Filipino, then no, they cannot come and
   work. They may say things like you were out, I do not know where
   you were. Your friends may have been in those places that were
   identified by the media. Or how about those Asian stores that you
   went to? There are other people who went there. I value the life of
   my children and so, don't come to work. Do a 10 day quarantine....
   After the 10 days, you know what happens? They are given 2 weeks
   notice that their services are not needed anymore. To prove what I
   am saying, I know these people who were terminated because of that.

      And another case is somebody who was in Niagara Falls; she came to
   Toronto on her days off. She was not allowed by her employers to
   come to Toronto. Her employers thought that she might be bringing
   back the virus from Toronto, so instead she was told to spend the
   day in the mall closer to Niagara Falls. She still insisted to come
   here. On her day off, she received a call from her employer asking
   where she was. When she said that she was in Toronto, they told her
   not to come back anymore.

Diaz from Intercede made clear that the loss of employment has a broad impact on the lives of live-in caregivers.

   The loss of the job means losing everything. For a live-in
   caregiver, you lose the income, you lose a home (because you are
   living with your employer), and you lose compliance with
   Immigration Canada and so jeopardize your status and immigration

The process of being dismissed by one employer and finding another one is long, bureaucratic and arduous. There are no allowances made by Immigration for the length of time it takes to go through this process.

   It takes 4-6 weeks to get approval from the HRDC and then in two
   months, you receive another work permit. And then you can try and
   find another employer who will hire you.

      But during that time, no one was hiring Filipina workers.

The Live-in Caregiver program is a joint agreement between the Canadian and the Philippine government. Live-in caregivers must meet the conditions of the program and be employed for at least 24 months in a period of 3 years. When this is fulfilled, they are then considered landed immigrants and may work towards becoming Canadian citizens.

   Because in order for them to become a permanent resident or landed
   immigrant here, the longer that they can stay with one employer,
   the better for them because they are working in a very limited time
   frame. They have a time limit to complete what they call the 24
   Live-In Work. And at the same time, for them to find a job too,
   it's true that they are entitled to apply for EI, but what happens
   is that it is not their priority to apply for EI immediately, their
   priority is to find a new employer because of the program that they
   came to do. So despite that, they try to look for another job and
   there is already a stigma on them, why did you move out from your
   employer? So the next employer will have a big question mark about
   whether they should take her. So it's not only financially,
   emotionally, but it's also their immigration status here that is

For the woman who contacted SARS and was unconscious for three months, her immigration case was still tentative at the writing of the report and INTERCEDE continued to advocate on her behalf.

   She was in coma, and she was terminated from her job and of course
   she cannot work.

      And luckily she survived. She is one of the SARS survivors. What
   happened during the three or four months that she was in coma?
   There is a big effect on her immigration status.

      And now, how can you have a family hire you knowing that you are
   a SARS survivor?

      When she was released from the hospital and OK to work, no one
   wanted to have her.

      And it seems like the government has a big responsibility in that.
   And they are not doing much about it. It's because she is a
   caregiver. If she was employed in a hospital, or was one of the
   nurses or doctors, probably she would be given more attention.


Since the outbreak of SARS in Canada, there has been a concerted effort by public institutions to understand what went wrong during the crisis from a public health perspective and whether the various agencies could have done better in stemming the outbreak and managing the disease. Among the reports that have been produced are the Campbell Commission's findings. The goal of this report is to exist alongside these other studies, inquiries and recommendations about the handling of SARS. The social, political, economic impact on Chinese and Southeast/East Asian communities must be considered as valid and as serious as other effects of the crisis. In this moment when discourses around national security and fear are ever intensifying, the racialization of SARS and its gendered and classed effects is just one example among many of how ethno-racial communities are vulnerable to being subjected to further marginalization. The SARS crisis clearly demonstrated how racially-defined groups like "Chinese Canadians," although often heralded as "model minorities" can easily be turned into objects of backlash and hate. It is our hope that the narratives in this report will bring heightened awareness to the wide effects on groups that are specifically targeted in moments of public panic, and draw attention to the fact that ideals of citizenship, civil society, democracy, anti-racism and human rights are particularly in jeopardy. The adverse effects from the racial profiling of SARS, 911 and other such events have made many of us question the core values of what Canada really stands for. But it must also move us individually and collectively to take the nation to task so that the Canadian public, the media and the government can be made accountable to these principles.


Media Portrayal

Mainstream Canadian print media contributed to the racialization of SARS and generation of public hysteria. Despite its relatively low death rate, the SARS outbreak was repeatedly compared to the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919, which killed at least 20 million people. The panic generated was directed toward Chinese and Asian Canadians through repetitive association of the disease with Asia, ethnic information about some SARS patients, and repeated visual references such as masked Asian faces. Members of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Canadian communities felt that the media directly racialized SARS, leaving their communities vulnerable to blame and discrimination.

Recommendation 1

Mainstream media should initiate and strengthen measures to reduce racial stereotyping in its content, including the establishment of community editorial boards or regular meetings with members of racialized communities for feedback and information-sharing; and initiation of employment equity programs to improve levels of racial representation of staff.

Alienation, Discrimination and Harassment

As a result of the SARS crisis, members of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Canadian communities felt stigmatized and experienced incidents of alienation, discrimination and harassment. These incidents included ostracization, discrimination by landlords, employers, businesses and public institutions, and hate. Despite appearances by various politicians in Chinese restaurants, members of the community felt that leaders needed to take a stronger stand against the backlash against Asian Canadians. The work of community organizations was also impeded by the impact of SARS. The backlash took a mental, psychological and emotional toll on members of these communities.

Recommendation 2

Governments at all levels should initiate a comprehensive plan of action to fight racism and discrimination in Canada. Some elements of this plan should be:

* Increased, stable funding for non-governmental groups who work in the area of anti-racism advocacy to support their public education and advocacy work.

* Support accessible, well-resourced and effective human rights commissions at the federal level and in all provinces and territories.

Recommendation 3

Public crisis response plans must include an analysis of and response to increased social tension, stereotyping and racism that can result from situations of crisis.

Recommendation 4

Public health authorities at all levels of government must integrate diverse communities in their work. Some of the ways that this can happen include:

* Ensuring that public health bulletins are available in major mother tongue languages and that ethnic/community media are included in all information releases and press conferences.

* Including racialized communities in health research; ensuring funding for research of health needs of diverse/racialized communities; and providing funding for community-based research on health.

Economic Impact

SARS affected businesses across Toronto but hit Chinese-owned businesses and those located in Chinatowns even harder. Loss of income is estimated at 40 to 80 per cent. Public funding for festivals and advertising did not reach the industries and individuals who were impacted the most.

Recommendation 5

In future crises, a portion of public relief funding should be allocated to affected small businesses.


The economic impact of SARS leads to job loss, in particular among non-unionized, low wage, non-status and service sector workers. Many of these workers could not access Employment Insurance Benefits. Some Live-in Caregivers, the majority of whom come from the Philippines, faced unfair dismissals that threatened their status in Canada.

Recommendation 6

Improve access to Employment Insurance for part-time service sector workers, and implement special programs to respond to crises such as the impact of SARS to ensure that workers facing loss of work can access EI benefits.

Recommendation 7

Provide landed status to live-in caregivers upon arrival to Canada.


(1.) See Kaye Anderson, Vancouver's Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada, 1875-1980. (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A195680111