'It's vicious': What it's like living through the UK’s coronavirus racism

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
Alvin Carpio, Lu Gram and Hau-Yu Tam are part of a campaign to launch the UK’s first non-profit organisation dedicated to addressing racism faced by people of east and south-east Asian heritage. (Lu Gram)
Alvin Carpio, Lu Gram and Hau-Yu Tam are part of a campaign to launch the UK’s first non-profit organisation dedicated to addressing racism faced by people of east and south-east Asian heritage. (Lu Gram)

“I’m surprised at how vicious it’s been.”

Lu Gram is referring to the spike in racist attacks towards people of east and south-east Asian heritage in the UK since COVID-19 was identified in Wuhan, China, in December last year.

“I didn’t expect people to be assaulted and attacked in the streets,” he tells Yahoo News UK. “It’s been very, very strong.”

Attacks during the outbreak have included a Singaporean student being beaten up in London; a Chinese takeaway owner in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, being spat at after he was asked if he had the virus; and vandals scrawling “f*** off home China scum” on the shop front of a takeaway in Dudley, West Midlands.

Gram, who is Chinese, has also been targeted. He was walking in Camden, north London, when someone shoved a newspaper in his face and accused him of “making us sick”.

In May, a House of Commons committee heard hate crime against south and east Asian communities has increased by 21% during the coronavirus crisis.

It’s why Gram and fellow campaigners are now fundraising to launch the UK’s first non-profit organisation dedicated to addressing racism faced by people of east and south-east Asian heritage.

'I’m surprised at how vicious it’s been.' Lu Gram on racism towards east and south-east Asians during the coronavirus pandemic. (Lu Gram)
'I’m surprised at how vicious it’s been.' Lu Gram on racism towards east and south-east Asians during the coronavirus pandemic. (Lu Gram)

This was happening before the pandemic, of course.

YouGov polling last month found 76% of Chinese people (and 61% of other Asians) in the UK have experienced someone saying a racial slur to them. Some 50% of the Chinese respondents said it’s happened multiple times.

What the pandemic has done, Gram argues, is intensify racist attitudes against east and south-east Asians, to the extent that he says some are “trying not to go outside because they are afraid of what people are going to do”.

He says “hateful rhetoric”, such as Donald Trump repeatedly referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus”, is driving racism.

However, he and fellow campaigners identified another problem: there is currently no dedicated UK organisation working against racism faced by east and south-east Asians.

Under their “end the virus of racism” campaign, they are now trying to raise £150,000 to form their own organisation in response to this.

It would support victims of hate crimes, hold politicians and public bodies to account and campaign nationwide. Gram says they also want to tackle wider “structural” issues.

As an example, Gram, a global health researcher at University College London, points to the number of Filipino healthcare workers who have died of COVID-19 during the pandemic.

In mid-June, an analysis by PA found 17% of UK healthcare deaths were people of Filipino heritage. In the 2011 census, people born in the Philippines accounted for 0.2% of the population in England and Wales.

Four of the Filipino health and care workers who have died during the pandemic. Clockwise from top left: Resy Manalo, Elma Cavalida, Norman Austria and Eleuterio Gibela. (PA)
Four of the Filipino health and care workers who have died during the pandemic. Clockwise from top left: Resy Manalo, Elma Cavalida, Norman Austria and Eleuterio Gibela. (PA)

Luton North MP Sarah Owen, who last year became only the second person of east or south-east Asian heritage to be elected to the House of Commons, tell this website: “There’s probably about 40,000 Filipinos working across healthcare, probably half of them are nurses.

“Yet they have made up 20% of the deaths of frontline and healthcare workers during this pandemic in the UK. There is clearly a disproportionate impact that this is having on our ethnic communities.

“So, to see on the flipside the increase of racist attacks on a group of people in this country are who are at the frontline quite often, is pretty galling.

“I can understand why there would be an impetus to set up a charity specifically on anti-racism.”

Luton North MP Sarah Owen. (UK Parliament/Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0))
Luton North MP Sarah Owen. (UK Parliament/Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0))

Owen, who in January accused Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan of making racism “permissible” after he mocked the Chinese accent live on air, adds she is unsurprised by the spike in racist incidents during the pandemic.

The Labour MP says: “I think there has always been an undercurrent of racism towards east Asians, Chinese and south-east Asians.”

She has also been subjected to racist abuse during the outbreak.

“Mostly on Twitter,” she says. “The usual abuse: we all eat live animals, it’s your fault for eating dogs, it’s your fault for eating bats…”

This “undercurrent” is why Gram and fellow campaigners are responding with their “end the virus of racism” campaign to create a dedicated charity.

He says: “There’s a long history where it has been difficult to get representation in the media and get visibility in the public.

“Part of it is us east and south-east Asians have a culture of keeping our heads down and keeping a low profile and not upsetting the social order.

“That is also what we are trying to change. We want to speak out on these issues.”

Click HERE to see the fundraising page.

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