Sickness and Health

Two huge issues are sweeping the world at the moment. Each has aspects of beauty and ugliness when taken individually. But when the two issues overlap, the sparks really start to fly.

The two are of course the outbreak of COVID 19, and the need to address systemic racism.

It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the new coronavirus. Over 12 million cases worldwide, around a quarter of them in the US alone, with more than half a million deaths so far. All these somber statistics are still on the rise, indeed growth in South Asia and South America is accelerating. Even places that have achieved some degree of control are vulnerable to fresh outbreaks. There is no end in sight and will not be one until there is an effective vaccine, still many months away.

Beauty at an individual level has been shown by the dedicated medical staff continuing to work despite the risks to themselves and their families, and the plea from intensive care nurses “we stay here for you, please stay home for us” was particularly touching.

At the institutional level, China deserved much credit (though got precious little) for continuing to export essential supplies to affected nations. Germany also lent a helping hand to European neighbours, while New York passed on ventilators to states further west once its own surge had been tackled.

Ugliness has been represented by the sheer stubbornness and incompetence of so many world leaders, the names Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson prominent among them. Efforts of only a few places earned applause from the international media such as the Economist magazine, Financial Times, CNN and BBC. Both New Zealand and Taiwan rated a favourable mention, and Singapore was also lauded initially until its own numbers began to soar. The same media did not seem to notice two other places with good results, viz Hong Kong and Macao, but I guess as parts of China they were automatically disqualified from being praised.

Racism has been a feature of life on earth for millenia, and it is natural for people to notice that some others are different from themselves. The question is how we should treat those of another ethnicity. Gradually after much soul searching most civilised societies have come to recognize that humans are essentially the same and that individuals should be judged on their own merits. Progress on this subject has been slow and patchy, particularly for societies with a history of involvement in slavery.

The situation has been particularly marked in the United States. For years there have been stories of differential policing, with officers more inclined to treat black suspects harshly including a readiness to open fire. Whatever doubts there may have been about the veracity of such claims were surely laid to rest by the amazing video, taken on a mobile phone, of the slow murder by a white police officer of a prone handcuffed black man. The dramatic death of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street has been viewed by millions around the world. There was already a Black Lives Matter movement in America following the death of other black suspects in police custody, but the vividness of this case seemed to inject new energy. Protest marches took place all over the country, with white people of all ages joining in.

The UK has not escaped criticism on this subject. A video circulating last week on news media websites showed police arresting a driver for the uniquely British offence of “driving an expensive car while being black”.

One striking feature of the protests against institutional racism has been the role played by sports stars. Leading sportsmen and women have always enjoyed something of a special status, a free pass if you will, on political matters because of their celebrity. But in recent years the lead was taken by Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who refused to stand for the national anthem before a match and then adopted the practice of going down on one knee (“taking a knee”), for the remainder of the 2016 season in protest at racial discrimination in policing. At first he was pretty much a one man band with few followers, Trump even called for him to be fired, and he was frozen out of the game for a few seasons. But Floyd’s murder has re-energised the gesture and it has spread overseas. The new English football season began with all the teams wearing Black Lives Matter on their shirts and all the players, white and black, taking a knee before kick-off. And last week the movement cracked the last bastion of conservatism, international cricket. The test match between England and the West Indies began with all players from both teams taking a knee.

Meanwhile there has been an explosion in the number of racist attacks on Chinese people around the world because of their alleged responsibility for the corona virus. There are documented cases of physical and/or verbal abuse on persons of Chinese appearance in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. For every incident of actual abuse, anecdotal evidence suggests a thousand milder cases of incidental racism – refusing to stand near a Chinese person in the street or the supermarket queue. Many of these instances have been quite absurd: a Japanese person targeted because of mistaken identity; an American-born daughter of a Filipino-American army veteran told to go back to her own country etc. Pasadena?

But Chinese people can be perpetrators as well as victims. In March, the ambassadors of several African countries complained to the Central People’s Government that their citizens were being mistreated and harassed in the southern city of Guangzhou, again because of the virus. The Nigerian Consul in that city intervened to prevent three of his countrymen being rounded up.

We in Hong Kong are not as innocent in this area as we sometimes like to pretend. For years there have been criticisms of the way we treat people with brown skin, particularly domestic helpers from the Philippines and Indonesia. At least we don’t often shoot them or put them in choke holds. Is that really much of a defence?

Finally we have the case of our new minister for constitutional and mainland affairs Erick Tsang Kwok-wai who celebrated his appointment with an interview on CCTV when he said “we should all work hard for the country and for the Chinese race”. Way to go Erick. The eyes of the world are upon us because of the national security law, so let’s tell them we are not afraid to bring race into politics. Given that the constitution recognizes more than 50 ethnic groups as Chinese, is that even legal?

As for me, I can’t breathe.