Whether it's the advent of social media or a deep-seated penchant for panicking, the widespread response to coronavirus is not unfamiliar. We've been here before, with a variety of viruses that have been widely credited with the ability to wipe our kind off the face of the Earth. Some even began stockpiling candles and bottled water prior to New Year's Day 2000, in the belief that computers had not been programmed for the new millennium, and that the world as we knew it was going to come to a grinding halt.

This time there seems to be a new element, however, in that the fact that coronavirus originated in China is giving some of us the opportunity to display the inherent racism that is never too far from the surface in this supposedly egalitarian, tolerant nation of immigrants.

Labour MP Raymond Huo said last week that coronavirus had become an all-consuming concern for this country's Chinese community, not only in terms of seeking personal safety but more concerningly because of the racial abuse it was giving rise to.

Some of us, it seems, can't resist blaming an entire race for producing the latest potential pandemic, and aren't too fussy about identifying precisely who is personally responsible for it. Just looking as though one might be of Chinese birth is quite enough, thank you.


Those who have been abused reportedly include a Singaporean woman who has lived in this country for 21 years, who copped a spray in an Auckland mall last week. She was only there to buy a wedding card, but came to the attention of a middle-aged woman who gave her "the dagger eyes," and accused her of being one of "the Asians" who had "brought this virus."

The victim pointed out that she was of Singaporean descent — which must have had some effect, because her accuser, who had appeared to be spoiling for a fight, "mumbled and glared" but walked away.

Even a cough would do it, according to Mr Huo, referring to a Chinese woman who had been in New Zealand for 18 months, who coughed while she was on her way to Pakuranga aboard a bus and was loudly informed by two fellow passengers that she was Chinese and unwell, and so should stay home.

He also noted an Australian tabloid newspaper had described coronavirus as 'Chinese virus,' and used the word PANDAmonium. There are obviously some more intelligent, decent Australians than those employed by the newspaper though, thousands signing an online petition calling on the paper to apologise.

An online petition in this country, calling for all people from China, and especially those from the district around Wuhan, where the virus was first reported, to be barred from entering New Zealand without full screening and quarantine had as of last week garnered more than 18,000 signatures, but that probably had more to do with fear of infection than any suggestion that the Chinese are personally responsible for it.

And then there are those for whom coronavirus has proved to be a stroke of luck, like the Auckland pharmacist who was last week reportedly selling face masks for $30, or $1500 for a box of 50, and, sadly, even at those extraordinary prices, had sold out. The big buyers, apparently, were customers of Asian extraction, who wanted to send the masks home to friends and family. The same masks could be bought at another pharmacy across the street for $3.50.

The first pharmacy reckoned its supplier had lifted its price, but was selling dust masks, which were costing it $2.50, for $15. Such is the law of supply and demand. Or, as Bob Hudson sang in his 1975 hit The Newcastle Song, 'Don't you ever let a chance go by, O Lord, Don't you ever let a chance go by.' The song was about Newcastle's "strange mating habits" but it'll do as a comparison.

And then there are the out and out whackos, who also never let a chance go by, including the Rhodes scholar who last week suggested that the best defence against coronavirus was to avoid spicy food (presumably from a street market in Wuhan), and to pig out on Vitamin C. You might be better off with a useless $30 face mask.


Anyway, the coronavirus scare, if that's what it is, or the first shot in the apocalypse, is clearly a boon for the racists, the ignorant and the greedy who live among us, some of whom might well still be trying to shift the candles they hoarded 20 years ago. Assuming that these are the same impressionable people who climb aboard every doomsday bandwagon, do you notice how they slink back out of sight when their predictions don't quite come true? But racism is a new element this time, and one that is very unwelcome.

The signs aren't good, given that anti-Semitism particularly seems to be making a comeback, not only in other less tolerant societies than we claim to be but right here. Why anyone in New Zealand would want to paint swastikas and the word 'Heil' outside a synagogue in Wellington defies all explanation, but paint them they did. It might not have been entirely coincidental that the expression of hatred towards an entire race came as most of the world (but not us — that's another story) prepared to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation by Russian troops of the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, where half the current population of New Zealand were put to death, the great majority of them simply because they were Jewish.

Perhaps we haven't come as far as some of us would like to think we have. Perhaps the undisguised enmity displayed towards Chinese immigrants to this country in the days of the 1860s goldrush in the Deep South still exists. The Far North's Dalmatian gumdiggers, wrongly regarded by many at the time as Austrians, also met a shameful reception from some, although there is no sign of that now. And nor should there be.

It is probably true, however, that every community in this country, whatever its racial or ethnic origins, has stories to tell, not all of them historic, of being treated badly, or at the very least with suspicion.

The claim that "He iwi tahi tatou — we are one people," as uttered by Lieutenant Governor William Hobson as Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi 180 years ago on Thursday, or as reaffirmed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the immediate aftermath of last year's mosque shootings in Christchurch, wasn't true in 1840 or in 2019, and probably never will be. The human condition, to which New Zealand is far from immune, will always include a belief, by some, in the inherent superiority of their race over others.

And it obviously doesn't take much to allow that sense of superiority to bubble to the surface, whether it be the remembrance of the sustained evil of Germany's Third Reich or the advent of a virus that has sparked little short of global panic, despite the fact that the vast majority of people on this planet are, currently at least, much more likely to die in a road crash or of the common flu than this latest bug on the block.

All we can do is assure those who call this country home, or who visit us here, that they are welcome, and console ourselves with the thought that those who succumb so easily to hatred and ignorance, who will always be with us, are in the minority.