In late January, Tina Lee was on her way to a gala in downtown Toronto when she heard the news on the car radio that would change everything.
The first case of the novel coronavirus had been reported in Canada at Sunnybrook Hospital in a man who had travelled from Wuhan, China.
Lee, CEO of T&T Supermarket, skipped the event that night, already suspecting that being in a crowded space shaking hands with strangers was quickly becoming dangerous.
“This is it,” she remembers thinking. “It’s here.”
The chain of 26 grocery stores that sell mostly Asian products in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, would by mid-March put a mandatory mask policy in place for employees and institute quarantines for staff coming back from impacted countries. By early May, amid shifting evidence from public health officials and stigma, they were among the first retailers to require face coverings for customers.
“We really jumped into action very quickly,” said Lee. “We felt we were swimming against the tide.”
New research led by York University’s Aaida Mamuji, a professor in the disaster and emergency management program, found that this story, the story of the GTA’s Chinese diaspora’s swift and proactive response to the emerging threat of COVID-19, has been lost amid stigma and racism.
“A lot of credit needs to be given to the Chinese community for where we are right now in terms of the spread, it could have been far worse,” Mamuji said.
“What we’re trying to highlight is that there’s so much more to the story that gets buried and that doesn’t help us move forward.”
The team hopes the project, which draws on interviews with 83 people across the GTA and was funded by Canadian Institutes of Health Research, can help prevent unfair targeting of groups during future pandemics. Phase 2 will centre on a public education campaign.
Well before protective measures were rolled out across the GTA, some restaurants in Chinatown were requiring temperature checks for staff and masks, and the Chinatown Business Improvement Area bought hundreds of hand-sanitizing stations for restaurants, the report found.
“There were a lot of actions that the Chinese community took ahead of everyone, actually, our own public health officials, our own government officials,” said Mamuji.
Many were hearing from connections in China about just how serious COVID-19 was. But the study also found that many media reports painted the community with a broad brush, not only as victims but as a homogenous group. Many, for example, have relatives in Hong Kong, not mainland China. There was also stigma and stereotyping within the community.
A lot of the backlash centred on masks and Asian people wearing them were accused of being sick and spreading the virus. That’s something that employees experienced at T&T’s Mississauga store after a customer went on a racist tirade in July. The man, caught on a video that went viral, refused to put on a face covering and yelled at an employee to “go back to China.”
“I would say that ranter, that is not the norm,” said Lee, adding they received an “outpouring of support,” after that incident made headlines.
“I feel very regretful, very regretful” she said, “that there’s a stigma attached to it and unfortunately the good things that the Chinese Canadian community have done have been overshadowed by this stigma.”
At T&T, which is owned by Loblaw but operated independently, the response was really based on feedback they were hearing from both customers and staff, said Lee.
“All of our T&T staff was on high alert and high anxiety and very deep memories came back from SARS,” she said.
They were also more accustomed to wearing masks, which before COVID were already more accepted in many Asian countries.
Lee hopes that others can learn from the community’s proactive response and that it can give Canada a “leg up” in fighting the pandemic, which we’ll be doing for “many months to come.”
For example, they’ve stopped doing temperature checks for now, which they started in April, because people standing in the hot weather in line were showing elevated temperatures. They did however turn away both staff and customers for having high temperatures and it’s something they’d consider bringing back if cases spike again.
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She said that they went from having their worst month ever in February, after false rumours that there were positive cases there, to having their best month ever in July.
The York University report found some of the dip in Chinese-Canadian business reported in January and February was due to the Chinese community already social distancing.
There’s some truth to that, said Avvy Go, clinic director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.
“A lot of people decided not to go to crowded places, just in case, because we were not sure at the time of the extent and the nature of the spread,” she said.
It’s “quite ironic” that while the community was being targeted for bringing the disease to Canada, “clearly we were the ones who have been sounding alarms and doing our part to keep ourselves safe.”
In fact, although the first reported case of the virus in Canada was from a man who’d travelled from China, data released by Toronto Public Health point to another nation as a bigger threat.
The top country linked to the earliest travel infections was the United States. Travellers from the country made up 37 per cent of travel cases in Toronto between January and March, or 106 people.
The United Kingdom was linked to 14 per cent of travel cases. Five per cent were from Iran. Travel to China and Italy was connected to fewer than five cases each in these first three months.
“The notion that we are the ones who brought the disease to Canada was not supported by the actual scientific evidence,” said Go.
“Because of our precaution and the approach we have taken, you can almost say that we went out of our way, making sure that we did not help spread the virus, because of the racial stereotypes.”
And despite the stigma, they were still wearing masks when no one else was.
“People were being targeted because they were wearing masks, they were being attacked, but in retrospect this was the right thing to do,” she said.
“Now people are realizing it.”
Correction — Aug. 5, 2020: This story was edited to note that T&T Supermarket had its worst month in February, not March.