A spate of racist incidents linked to the coronavirus outbreak are being investigated by police, prompting fears among members of the Chinese community that they will face abuse if they wear face masks.
Chinese students in Southampton have been targeted with abuse, including one who had a stone thrown at them and told to go back to their “fucking country”, and another who was labelled a “fucking virus” by a passerby because she was wearing a face mask.
A Chinese restaurant worker in the city was also shouted at by a man who cited coronavirus, while a passenger in Portsmouth was reported to have been ordered off a bus by the driver because he was wearing a face mask.
The four incidents all occurred within the space of three days at the start of the month, according to a dossier compiled by the Chinese Association of Southampton (CAS) seen by the Guardian. Hampshire Constabulary has confirmed it is investigating the reports, with the force warning: “Any crime perpetuated through ignorance, prejudice or hate is unacceptable.”
Dr Michael Ng, who is chair of CAS, which has around 200 members, told the Guardian that hostility against the Chinese community was at the worst level he had known since he arrived in the UK 24 years ago.
“It’s quite scary when you are walking, as a student, to have people shouting at you, throwing stones at you and you are on your own,” he said.
“I have a lot of PhD students from China who when they come here they like to wear masks because it seems to be something quite common in China because of air pollution and other things but now they won’t wear masks. It’s because of the threat of being abused, of being called a virus.”
The incidents reported to the police, first reported by Portsmouth paper, the News, include someone who had stone thrown at them. The student was walking near Primark in Southampton’s city centre on 3 February when they were targeted by a man and woman. The dossier says: “The stone missed … Offender shouting abuse including the word ‘coronavirus’ and going back to the fucking country.”
In a separate case a day earlier, the dossier records abuse against a female student walking home. “Unknown male shouting abuse to her and called her fucking virus,” it reads.
Two other incidents were recorded on 1 February, including a resident wearing a face mask who was apparently told to leave a public bus in the Portsmouth area by the driver. First Solent and Stagecoach, which run bus services in Portsmouth, said no complaint had so far been received relating to that incident.
In another case a restaurant worker was harassed while he walked home, according to the dossier which records: “Unknown white male shouting abuse to him, including the coronavirus and swearing.”
The dossier also includes information about another case, which was not reported to the police, involving Chinese pupils in Portsmouth being shouted at by others in school grounds. The incident prompted the school’s head to issue a warning to the entire school about the behaviour.
It comes after a University of Southampton student tested negative for coronavirus in hospital earlier this month after feeling unwell when they returned from a trip to China. Southampton University’s Chinese students and scholars association has created a poster reading: “I am not a virus, I am a human,” in a bid to combat discrimination on campus over coronavirus, which has claimed more than 1,800 lives worldwide and infected more than 73,000 people.
Last week a school in the city was evacuated and closed for three days over coronavirus fears sparked by pupils from the same family who came down with symptoms after returning from a country hit by the disease.
A Hampshire Constabulary spokesman said: “A small number of incidents linked to speculation about coronavirus have been reported to us in Southampton and Portsmouth. Any crime perpetuated through ignorance, prejudice or hate is unacceptable.”
A University of Southampton spokesperson said: “The university is extremely concerned by unacceptable comments directed at Chinese students. We have not had any reports of incidents on campus but we do not tolerate any form of racism and would take action as a matter of urgency on any such behaviour.”