Dan Littauer, 50, an Israeli living in Madrid said he was “sickened to the core” by an incident he witnessed on the metro between Lavapies and Sol on Thursday evening.
“I was sitting next to an Asian looking lady on Line 3 of the metro when she sneezed,” he told The Local.
What happened next, shook both him and her.
“Immediately that she sneezed, half of the fellow passengers in the carriage looked over with horrified expressions, they were all staring at her and each other as they got up and backed away and then when the train pulled into the next stop all but a few got off the train and I could see some of them transferring to another carriage,” explained Littauer.
“I stayed seated next to her, but a man seated next to me gave me a look like ‘are you mad to continue sitting next to her?’ Then he stood up, and looked at her with blatant disgust and left.”
The incident was made worse because moments before “the sneeze” that sparked the outrage, a woman had been violently coughing.
“She was a Caucasian and despite being visibly under the weather and coughing horribly, no-one had batted an eyelid, then this Asian woman sneezed and the reaction was quite different.”
He said that the woman was visibly shaken. “I asked if she wanted a chewing gum or something to drink and she seemed so surprised that I hadn’t moved away and was talking to her, she kept saying ‘gracias, gracias’,”.
Littauer said that she was trembling and was close to tears. “So I asked her if she needed a hug, and if I could help in any way and she answered that I already had.”
He then tried to distract her from what had happened and engage in chit chat. “It turns out she was from Thailand and is Madrid at university studying a degree in Nursing. When it came to my stop and I got up to leave she said: ‘Thanks for caring’.
Littauer posted about the incident in a group on Facebook, firstly to express his shock at the incident but also to encourage others to reach out to those who might also be a victim of racism thanks to the hysteria around the new virus.
Dan Littauer was shocked by the incident. Photo: D Littauer
“It’s incredible the messages it garnered, lots of people showed their support but others just didn’t see it as a display of racism but as a valid reaction to not wanting to get sick,” Littauer said.
“There is so much ignorance about this outbreak even though there have been no confirmed cases in Spain.”
There is a thriving Chinese community in Spain with a registered 202,093 residents who were born in China. The second generation is booming with 2,555 children born in 2018 in Spain with at least one Chinese born parent.
Many have set up successful businesses including restaurants and the convenience stores that appear on many street corners and which are generically called ‘Chinos’ – a term often used in Spain to describe anyone of east-Asian appearance.
The incident witnesses by Littauer is hardly likely to be a one-off and has certainly been repeated in other parts of the world.
Earlier this week Australian media reported complaints by the Chinese community that the coronavirus was fuelling racist and bigoted attitudes towards them.
And Korean-American living in Brooklyn wrote about coronavirus jibes directed at her as she walked down a street.
Back in Spain a meme is doing the rounds which consists of a figure in a chemical protection suit with the slogan “just popping down to the chino for some ice,” referring to the convenience store often run by Chinese merchants.
Infact, Littauer received the very same meme in a whatsapp message just hours after witnessing the incident on the metro.
“It just confirmed to me how ignorant if not downright racist people can be, making a joke at the expense of an entire group of people,” said Littauer. “I didn’t find it amusing at all.”