anti-asian hate rally sign

Discrimination Against East Asians in the UK Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only brought human and economic losses to the world but, also an increase in several forms of discrimination against many ethnic groups. Ethnicities from the East Asian and South-East Asian (ESEA) community were those among the most vulnerable. 

Note: East Asians here refer to people with roots in or from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Mongolia, etc.
South-East Asians refer to people with roots in or from Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.

The recent shootings at the spas in the city of Atlanta in the USA have made the world more aware of the hate crimes against this community. Unfortunately, racially-biased aggression is not just limited to the USA. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes against people of ESEA descent have skyrocketed around the world.

In this post, we explore the issues that ESEA people face in the United Kingdom. The UK was selected for this post because it is one of the most important countries in the west where the ESEAs are an ethnic minority group, forming at least 2% of the British population. The group is growing quickly there and it has also been a popular destination for pursuing higher studies.

Since the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, in December 2019, the community in the UK has been targeted based on racial bias.
Though discriminatory sentiments have always been visible throughout history, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it worse.

Not enough attention is given to the anti-Asian racism that the ESEA community face daily as such, the issues there are often overlooked. Therefore, this post sheds light on the circumstances of the ESEA people in the UK.

Background of ESEA Discrimination in the UK 

In the 19th century, the ESEAs, starting with the Chinese, started settling down in small areas within London and Liverpool; port areas that would facilitate their trade and employment, as seamen. Over time, these areas grew, and the population began settling in other parts of the UK as well. These settlements developed into the Chinatowns that we know of today.

By the late 19th century, a certain sentiment of prejudice grew among the British who regarded the Chinese as a threat to their jobs. Furthermore, these settlements were seen as mysterious and exotic places by the locals. Taking advantage of the suspicious ambience of the areas, politicians, locals, and writers of the time, began maligning them and instilling fear in the general public. They would even associate these places with centres of opium abuse and gambling.

With this image, the Chinese soon lost their employment and social status. To maintain and earn a livelihood, they opened up laundries within their communities. Sadly, in the early 20th century, one of these laundries was stoned by the local crowd, presumably motivated by discriminatory sentiment.

Adding on to the history of discrimination, in 1919, anti-Chinese riots took place in London Chinatown as a ‘measure to curb pollution. The local newspaper at the time, the Daily Express, described the area as a foul-smelling and unhygienic den with overcrowded living spaces. Even though most of Britain in that era would have the same living conditions, the Chinese community would face deliberate backlash.

Laundry shop in the London Chinatown
Hand Laundry at Chinatown in London. Image Credit: Pinterest

The discriminatory behaviour caused by fear and competition of finding jobs and real estate had turned into a social norm by then.

Why is Racial Discrimination a Social Issue?

The prevalence of these attitudes in British history and the normalization of anti-Asian sentiments in that era instilled these irrational beliefs within the system. As such, the sentiments still exist as they pass on from one generation to the other. Additionally, current events and negative perceptions curated by political leaders and the media, influence the general population.

Racism in societies does not allow trust and respect among one another. It is a vile ideology that dehumanises and belittles others based on physical appearance and ethnic background. It is ethically problematic as it deprives the rights and privileges of one community, often benefitting others.

As it is an ideology that negatively affects a large group of people, it is a social issue.

The UNESCO even calls it social cancer as it invades and feeds on a system from within until there are chaos and death.

What do ESEAs Face Daily in the UK?

Nearly 3/4th of people of ESEA descent have encountered COVID-19 related attacks both physically and psychologically. Among the Chinese alone, 15% have faced some form of anti-Asian discrimination, the highest among all minor ethnic groups in the UK.

Before moving forward let me explain what COVID-19 related attacks even are. These are racially discriminatory attitudes and actions towards people of ESEA descent. ESEAs are targeted because they are associated with the SARS CoV-2 or the coronavirus that was first found in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019. Many people have this belief that ESEAs are responsible for spreading it in the UK. This gives people a way to blame someone for their losses and issues.

Not only are the Chinese targeted but even people with Asian features who aren’t from China or of Chinese origin, and mixed-race Asians too are vulnerable.

As a result, ESEAs are verbally abused, intimidated, harassed, given a look of disgust, showing insulting gestures, hurled racial slurs at, etc. 76% of the Chinese have been passed racial slurs, which is the highest compared to all other races in the UK.

The most common slurs involve being called ‘coronavirus’, ‘covid’ or ‘go back to where you came from,’ among others.

At times, people even go to the extent of spitting and coughing on them during a global health crisis. In the most extreme circumstances, there are cases of racially motivated home invasions, assault, running over, robbery and even murder.

The result is long term trauma that is extremely difficult to overcome. There have even been instances when the trauma has even resulted in job losses which eventually led to bankruptcy and ultimately, poverty.

Impact of Discrimination and COVID-19 on Businesses operated by ESEAs

Businesses have been hampered, not only because of the economic crisis that followed the COVID-19 pandemic but also because their shops were vandalized. Even before the coronavirus spread throughout the UK, more than  50%  of the businesses shut down as people believed visiting ESEA shops would transmit the virus to them. Consequently, the community were and are still struggling to maintain a livelihood, becoming more prone to poverty.

Discrimination of ESEAs in Educational Establishments

In schools, kids are bullied often and are made to feel different, like an outsider both, by other students and the teachers at times. 

In everyday life, casual racism is common. Racist remarks are made, then the ESEAs are advised to take it in a joking manner and have a sporting attitude towards their racist comments.

Discrimination against ESEA Women

Asian women have faced some of the worst cases of discrimination. They deal with both racial and gender discrimination simultaneously. They are excessively sexualized and fetishized. If not, they are either stereotyped as women who are timid and sincere.

Discrimination of ESEA Healthcare Workers

Even the ESEA healthcare workers are not spared from the trauma despite providing their services to the medical sector at a time like this.

ESEAs are thus, anxious about their safety, loss of livelihood and they feel a sense of helplessness and loneliness from the lack of support from other ethnic communities. They are more susceptible to suffering from serious mental illnesses as well. 

ESEA Discrimination in the UK before the COVID-19 Pandemic 

Instances of hate crimes and xenophobic sentiments against ESEAs existed even before the pandemic. For example, a student once stabbed another student of ESEA descent with a knife, stating that they did not like ‘mixing with other races.’ However, this tendency has escalated with the pandemic as many are using the pandemic as an excuse to express their xenophobic attitudes.

Some Incidents during the Pandemic

In 2020, a 37-year-old professor, teaching at the University of Southampton was attacked by four men who had yelled racial slurs at him and thrashed his nose till it was bloody.

professor of asian origin beaten till his nose was bloodied
Image of the injured professor. The nose injury has been censored. Image Credit: Global Times

Similarly, a woman in Edinburgh was assaulted while walking back home at night with her 2 children. A group of 10 teenage boys approached her from the opposite side of the road and slapped the back of her head yelling ‘covid!’ and making a run for it. 

Even just recently, my ESEA friends studying in the UK shared that they’re often scared to go out and when they do, they cover as much of their faces as possible with a mask and, by putting on their hoods, conceal their identity. 

Daily incidents of discriminatory attitudes and attacks against the ESEAs truly dehumanise the entire community, clearly showing the level of intolerance.

ESEA Reporting in the Media 

Even the media doesn’t help, as a bunch of stereotypes are propagated by them. Since the pandemic, there has been an increase in the amount of racist discussion and anti-Chinese conspiracy theories online. These are the sorts that believe ‘all Chinese consume live exotic animals.’ Additionally, the number of racist memes shared daily is also at an all-time high.

The number of Asian hate crimes has been three times more in 2020 as compared to 2019 and 2018. Last June, it was found that 395 cases would increase every time there were relaxations in the lockdown. This number may be inaccurate as the actual number is speculated to be more. This is because several cases go unreported.

Many are not able to report incidents due to their lost faith in the police and getting justice. Many believe that the authorities will not take them seriously or for biased treatment.

A study from 2009 proves that the ESEA community find it difficult to place their faith in law enforcement to seek justice due to the police response to these issues and their efficacy. On the other hand, many families choose not to complain to avoid further conflict and harassment. Or, because culturally, issues are resolved among people without the intervention of the authorities. Due to this, many do not take them seriously, as they don’t usually get the police involved. Though the latter is changing, it still acts as a cultural barrier.

What are some reasons behind ESEA Racism?

deserted london chinatown duringcovid
Image Credit: Evening Standard

Apart from associating ESEAs to China, where the coronavirus was first found, other reasons caused the spike in anti-Asian discrimination in the UK. These are as follows: 

  • Political leaders around the world and in the UK have used racial slurs to refer to the ESEAs, setting a terrible example to the public. This influenced many to believe that it is appropriate to address other ethnicities in the same way.  Leaders have referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus” and ESEAs as “evil bastards.”

  • There is very limited or no visible support shown by leaders to the ESEA community members regarding the injustices they face. Hence, the public doesn’t necessarily take it.
  • According to the Guardian, far-right groups in the UK, who in the past have had explicitly racist ideologies, are attempting to normalize racial discrimination using the coronavirus as an excuse.

  • 33% of the images used related to COVID news in the UK, had Asians in them. This falsely associates Asian people with the virus thus strengthening the idea that they are responsible for its propagation.

  • Asians, in general, are underrepresented in the media, politics, sports, etc. meaning that those in these fields have a limited understanding of them and, anti-Asian hate.

  • There is a stigma attached to ESEAs for not being vocal, being too tolerant and submissive. So, they are seen as soft targets. 

  • Minorities have been discouraged to be vocal because of the existence of systemic racism within society and administration.  

  • Lastly, many do not fear the law enforcement authorities, many show prejudiced attitudes due to social stress to find employment and they fear losing their chance to minorities or immigrants, many are influenced by the image the media creates for them and, peer pressure. 

What is being done to tackle ESEA racism in the UK?

Anti-Asian hate in the UK is not given sufficient media coverage that is why it is ignored, never discussed and thus, on the rise.

In 2020, Sarah Owen, a member of parliament of Asian descent asked the British government to address the issue, condemn the actions and allow more representation of Asians in committees to include their point of view too.

Unprovoked racially biased aggression towards ESEA people is a matter of personal safety, limitation to freedom and identity. Nothing can justify such actions or attitudes merely based on someone’s physical appearance and ethnic background.

woman wearing a mask with the message 'stop asian hate'
A woman wearing a mask with the slogan Stop Asian Hate. A sign of protest against hate crimes against the ESEA community. Image Credit: Vogue UK

So far some have been persecuted, many are still far from getting justice. We must stand up for each other, show solidarity and support.

There are certain organizations are movements to encourage people to raise their voices against these social injustices, report incidents, share stories, spread awareness and most importantly educating people.

You may visit the links below to support their work and cause:

  1. End the Virus of Racism movement tackles racism towards ESEA descent in the UK and host conversations
  2. ESA Scotland is a non-profit aiming to fight social injustices by the ESEA community in the UK. 
  3. BESEAN working to eliminate false stereotypes and working to represent ESEAs in a positive light.
  4. Racism Unmasked Edinburgh is a network spreading awareness regarding ESEA discrimination in the UK.


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