At the end of January, Tina Lee was on her way to a gala in downtown Toronto when she heard the news on the car stereo that was going to change everything.
The first case of the new coronavirus was reported in Canada at Sunnybrook Hospital in a man who had traveled from Wuhan, China.
Lee, CEO of T&T Supermarket, skipped the event that night, already suspecting that being in a crowded space shaking hands with strangers was quickly becoming dangerous.
“This is it,” she remembers thinking. ” It’s here. “
The chain of 26 grocery stores that sell mostly Asian products in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario would put a mandatory mask policy in place for employees by mid-March and institute quarantines for staff returning from countries affected. In early May, amid shifting evidence from public health officials and stigma, they were among the first retailers to demand masks for customers.
“We really got into action really quickly,” Lee said. “We felt like we were swimming against the tide.”
New research led by Aaida Mamuji of York University, a professor in the Disaster and Emergency Management program, has revealed that this story, the story of the Chinese GTA diaspora’s rapid and proactive response to the emerging threat of COVID-19, has been lost amidst stigma and racism.
“The Chinese community has to be given a lot of credit for the current situation in terms of the spread, it could have been a lot worse,” Mamuji said.
“What we are trying to emphasize is that there is so much more to the story that is buried and it does not help us move forward.
The team hopes the project, which draws on interviews with 83 people in the Greater Toronto Area and was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, can help prevent unfair targeting of groups during future pandemics. Phase 2 will focus on a public awareness campaign.
Long before protective measures were deployed in the Greater Toronto Area, some restaurants in Chinatown required temperature controls for staff and masks, and the Chinatown Business Improvement Zone purchased hundreds of stations from hand disinfection for restaurants, according to the report.
“There have been a lot of actions that the Chinese community has taken before everyone else, in fact our own public health officials, our own government officials,” Mamuji said.
Many were hearing from connections in China about how serious COVID-19 was. But the study also found that numerous media reports have portrayed the community in general, not only as victims but as a cohesive group. Many, for example, have relatives in Hong Kong, not mainland China. There was also stigma and stereotypes within the community.
Much of the backlash centered on the masks and Asian people who wore them were accused of being sick and spreading the virus. It’s something employees experienced at the T&T Mississauga store after a customer launched a racist tirade in July. The man, who was filmed in a video that went viral, refused to cover his face and yelled at an employee to “go back to China”.
“I would say that is not the norm,” Lee said, adding that they had received a “wave of support” after the incident made headlines.
“I am very sorry, very regrettable,” she said, “that there is a stigma attached to it and unfortunately the good things the Chinese-Canadian community has done have been overshadowed by this stigma. .
At T&T, which is owned by Loblaw but operated independently, the response was actually based on feedback received from customers and staff, Lee said.
“All of our T&T staff were on high alert and high anxiety and very deep memories returned from SARS,” she said.
They were also more used to wearing masks, which before COVID were already more accepted in many Asian countries.
Lee hopes others can learn from the community’s proactive response and can give Canada a “head start” in the fight against the pandemic, which we will do for “many months to come.”
For example, they stopped doing temperature checks for now, which they started in April, because people queuing in hot weather were showing high temperatures. They have, however, refused both staff and customers to have high temperatures and this is something they would consider bringing back if cases increase again.
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She said they went from the worst month of their lives in March, after false rumors that there were positive cases there, to their best month in July.
The York University report found that part of the decline in Sino-Canadian business reported in January and February was due to the already socially left Chinese community.
There is some truth to this, says Avvy Go, clinical director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.
“A lot of people decided not to go to crowded places, just in case, because we weren’t sure at the time of the extent and nature of the spread,” she said. declared.
It is “quite ironic” that, as the community was targeted for bringing the disease to Canada, “clearly we have sounded the alarm and done our part to keep ourselves safe.
In fact, although the first reported case of the virus in Canada came from a man who had traveled from China, data released by Toronto Public Health indicates that another country poses a greater threat.
The main country linked to the first travel-related infections was the United States. Travelers from the country accounted for 37% of trips to Toronto between January and March, or 106 people.
The UK was associated with 14% of travel cases. Five percent came from Iran. Travel to China and Italy were associated with fewer than five cases each in those first three months.
“The idea that we were the ones who brought the disease to Canada was not supported by actual scientific evidence,” Go said.
“Because of our precaution and the approach we took, you can almost say we went out of our way to make sure we didn’t help spread the virus, because of racial stereotypes.”
And despite the stigma, they still wore masks when no one else was.
“People were targeted for wearing masks, they were attacked, but in retrospect it was the right thing to do,” she said.
“Now people are realizing it.”