Coronavirus: Asian women in Canada are abused, punched and spat on. Is it racist maskaphobia?

Ian Young

According to Metro Vancouver Transit Police, the unidentified man boarded a downtown bus on April 15 – then immediately turned his attention to two Asian women, both wearing face masks.

“Go back to your country; that’s where it all started,” he told the pair, according to a police request for public assistance issued on Tuesday. Police say the man then attacked a third woman who came to the pair’s defence, kicking her, wrestling her to the floor of the bus and ripping out a clump of hair.

Three days before that attack, a different man was captured on surveillance footage strolling through Vancouver.

He veers towards a small Asian woman wearing a hoodie. She glances up before the man punches her in the face, sending her sprawling to the ground.

As the 22-year-old victim clutches her head and turns towards her attacker while he saunters away, the camera catches a glimpse of the blue face mask she is wearing.

On April 8, ER nurse Katherine Cheung said she and a flatmate were waiting for a food order in downtown Toronto when a woman in her 60s racially abused them, beat them with an umbrella and then spat on Cheung.

Cheung too was wearing a face covering, telling CTV News: “It happened because I’m Asian and wearing a mask.”

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No arrests have been made in any of the three incidents, which occurred in the space of eight days. The exact motives are unclear.

But they come amid a wave of attacks on mask-wearing Asian people around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Yinxuan Huang, a sociology researcher at the University of Manchester, has been examining the phenomenon of “maskaphobia” – discrimination and racism against people wearing face masks.

“It is on the one hand a cultural conflict between the East where wearing masks are pretty normal, and the West where wearing masks can present a different meaning, even a sort of threat to some extent,” said Huang.

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“On the other hand, this cultural difference has become an excuse to legitimise xenophobia, particularly given that China is where the pandemic started.”

Huang said a spate of maskaphobia-type attacks represented both a magnification of racism and an expression of existing racism directed at overseas Asian communities.

A 22-year-old Asian woman wearing a blue face mask, on ground near fire hydrant, watches her attacker walk away after she was punched on April 12 in Vancouver. Photo: Vancouver Police Department

He said that although Asian communities were sometimes regarded as “model citizens”, they also sometimes displayed “comparatively poorer” social and cultural integration. Mask-wearing as a conspicuous collective response to the pandemic made overseas Asians and especially Chinese “clear targets”, he said.

Huang, who has been researching how the Chinese Christian community in Britain reacts to the pandemic, said he personally knew of three attacks on “friends and students”, all wearing masks.

This cultural difference [of mask-wearing] has become an excuse to legitimise xenophobia, particularly given that China is where the pandemic started

Sociologist Dr Yinxuan Huang

“We learn [about] most of these cases through social media, especially Chinese sources such as WeChat,” he said, cautioning that social media could have an amplifying effect within the Chinese community, making the incidents “seem more terrifying as they depict an even worse picture”.

In addition to Britain and Canada, there have been reports of racist attacks on mask-wearing Asians in Australia and the US.

The bus attack in Vancouver was decried by police who said on Tuesday that “violence and racism have no place on the transit system”.

Sociologist Dr Yinxuan Huang of the University of Manchester. Photo: Handout

According to the police, the attacker had boarded the bus at Main Street and East Hastings in Vancouver at 4.25pm on April 15 and verbally abused the two mask-wearing Asian women.

“A woman who was sitting directly across from the man told him to leave the two women alone,” transit police said in a press release. “This led to a brief argument … the suspect allegedly jumped up and kicked the victim in the leg. As the victim stood up to defend herself, the suspect allegedly reached over and violently pulled the victim’s hair, pulling so hard that a large clump of hair was pulled from her head. The suspect allegedly punched the victim numerous times in the head and wrestled her to the ground.”

The victim – who suffered bruising and an injured scalp – eventually fought off the man, who jumped off the bus and ran away.

He was described as Caucasian, 45 to 55 years old, approximately 165cm (5 foot 5) tall, with a stocky build. He was wearing a red baseball hat, a blue T-shirt, light grey sweatpants and blue shoes.

Sergeant Aaron Roed of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) – a separate force from the transit police – said investigators were aware that the victim in the April 12 street attack had been wearing a mask. There was no communication between her and the attacker before he lashed out.

The Vancouver Police Department have noticed an increase in hate crimes related to race and are investigating any incident which is based on hate, including if it may be due to the wearing of PPE

VPD Sergeant Aaron Roed

“Vancouver Police are aware that the victim was wearing a PPE [personal protective equipment] mask,” said Roed. “We have notified our diversity and hate crimes section who are working with our major crime unit on this investigation. We are not ruling anything out when it comes to this investigation.”

Roed added: “The VPD have noticed an increase in hate crimes related to race and are investigating any incident which is based on hate, including if it may be due to the wearing of PPE.”

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The VPD said recently that there had been 20 anti-Asian hate crimes reported this year, compared with 12 in all of 2019. Sixteen of this year’s anti-Asian hate crime reports were made in March or April.

Toronto police did not respond to a request for an update on Cheung’s case, although CTV reported last month that it was not being treated by investigators as a hate crime. Cheung could not be reached for comment.

Anyone who witnessed the April 15 Vancouver bus attack, or who is able to identify the attacker, is asked to contact the Metro Vancouver Transit Police tip line at 604-516-7419. Anyone with information about the punching of the woman on April 12 is asked to call the VPD’s Major Crime Section at 604-717-2541 or Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-8477.

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