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Solidarity with Wuhan: Protestors oppose racist responses to the coronavirus

Speakers advocated for health-based policy to address the recent outbreak and denounced Australia’s discriminatory border closure.

Photo by Chuyi Wang.

Around 40 protestors gathered outside the Department of Home Affairs on Friday to oppose the Australian Government’s recent travel ban and growing anti-Chinese sentiment.

Hosted by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council (SRC), the rally criticised the lack of medical evidence for the efficacy of the ban and drew attention to the many forms of racism resulting from the policy. 

Speakers demanded medically informed, non-racist action and acknowledged the seriousness of the coronavirus, voicing solidarity with those directly affected in Wuhan and others impacted by travel bans globally, especially international students. 

The unprecedented travel ban follows a similar ban by the United States, a decision directly opposed to the World Health Organisation’s advice on trade and travel. After travelling through Wuhan, non-citizens have been immediately denied entry whilst citizens have been sent to Christmas Island. 

Fei Zhang opened the protest with a powerful statement of solidarity and denounced the travel ban as “government led racism” designed to create racialised panic and fear. Zhang argued  that recent public discussion of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has relied on the “yellow peril” rhetoric of the 1990’s, and reminded protestors that this racism had not gone away.  

“International students are students and deserve at least equal care”. 

NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong repeated this message, stating that “Liberals have used yellow peril to whip up racist support” and questioned if a similar ban would be imposed had the virus originated in Europe. Leong acknowledged the danger of the coronavirus but provided perspective, pointing to a recent tweet from Brad Hazzard, NSW Minister for Health, that said of the 9000 travellers screened for Coronavirus, 396 were closely assessed and no cases were found. 

The effect the ban has had on international students and the university sector more broadly was a key focus of the rally. 

A statement from an international student trapped in Wuhan described the ban as “inhumane and unreasonable”, expressing a feeling of betrayal by the government.

Secretary of the NSW NTEU Michael Thompson emphasised the impact of the ban on university students and staff, especially at the University of Sydney  where 38% of undergraduates are international students. 

“Management has not been clear on their treatment of coronavirus”.  

SRC President Liam Donohoe and General Secretary Abbey Shi spoke out against the recent racism and vilification of Chinese people. Donohoe described the ban as a “homogenising policy”, likening it to banning Western Australians from travelling due to an outbreak in Melbourne.

“This reaction is unprecedented,” Donohoe told the rally. “It’s like treating dandruff by decapitation, it has the subtlety of an elephant on roller-skates”. 

The rally was briefly interrupted by a scuffle. A demonstrator holding a sign reading “Coronavirus is safe” with a 4Chan logo was directly involved, and was moved along by police.

As of 8 February, there are 15 cases of novel coronavirus in Australia. Despite calls from international students, the University of Sydney has not delayed the start of classes, and students have until 30 March to return to the country. It remains uncertain when the ban will be lifted. 

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