Is coronavirus paranoia fuelling racism against the Chinese in Spain?

An incident on the Madrid metro on Thursday has served to highlight the anti-Chinese sentiment that has infected society as panic spreads over the coronavirus.

Is coronavirus paranoia fuelling racism against the Chinese in Spain?
File photo of a woman in a mask in Thailand. Photo: AFP

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.”


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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.