Some members of Hong Kong’s South Asian communities have reported an uptick in discriminatory incidents this week, following suggestions by a senior health official that ethnic minorities were engaging in “behaviour that put them at risk” of contracting Covid-19.

Reports include being singled out at work, being on the receiving end of derogatory remarks, and being asked to stay home.

south asian
File Photo: Cottonbro via Pexels.

The uptick comes after Hong Kong’s head of the Health Promotion Branch at the Centre for Health Protection (CHP), Raymond Ho Lei-ming, suggested that the city’s ethnic minorities were at a higher risk of spreading the virus.

“They have many family gatherings and like to gather with fellow countrymen. They like to share food, smoke, drink alcohol and chat together,” Ho said at a press conference on Monday. “If it is without masks, the risk is high. They also need to share sanitary facilities with neighbours if the living environment is crowded.”

Qualifying the remarks, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday the recent rise in infections has “nothing to do with ethnicity.” 

Hong Kong’s daily infection figure rose sharply to 107 on January 18, 102 of which were locally transmitted cases. More than a quarter of the city’s 661 locally-transmitted cases from January 4-18 were of South Asian descent according to the CHP, mostly from the Yau Tsim Mong district.

A 44-year-old Nepali woman, who works as a cleaner for a major industrial group, told HKFP that her employer allegedly made her and four other Nepali cleaners take a Covid-19 test on Wednesday in light of Ho’s remarks.

Street cleaners in Hong Kong face mask
Street cleaners in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

“They only asked us five Nepalis to do the test,” she said, requesting anonymity. “They also asked us for our home address. Even though I told them I lived in Tsuen Wan, they kept requesting evidence like a bank statement.”

“I definitely think it’s because of the comments made by the health official,” she said. “When there were some infections in the office building a few months ago, they made everyone take a test. This time, only us Nepalis were singled out. I felt we were being discriminated against because of our ethnicity.”

In a separate incident this week, a Deliveroo customer requested “no Indian/Pakistan rider” when they placed a food order on Wednesday.

A spokesperson from Deliveroo confirmed to HKFP that they were notified of the exchange on Wednesday night and permanently deactivated the customer’s account the following day.

“We were saddened to learn about a Deliveroo customer’s inappropriate and wholly unacceptable delivery notes,” the spokesperson said. “Deliveroo operates a zero-tolerance policy in regards to racism towards riders working with us.”

Deliveroo services in Hong Kong. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

A 28-year-old Nepali construction worker who spoke to HKFP on condition of anonymity alleged that he was asked not to return to work on Thursday, because of Ho’s remarks.

“The construction site had a few Covid-19 cases some time back and the project had been halted for about a month,” he said. “When we resumed work on Thursday, all [the Nepali workers] were asked to stay home while the Chinese workers went in. The reason given was because ‘many Nepalese are getting infected’.”

The founder and chairperson of the Muslim Council of Hong Kong, Adeel Malik, told HKFP that Ho’s remarks were “derogatory and damaging.” 

“One or two comments by leaders can have such a huge impact, and these comments just reinforce stereotypes and false perceptions,” he said. “The media coverage of this incident has been deeply troubling as well, and many ethnic minority communities felt that it wasn’t right.”

Apple daily ethnic minority

Local newspaper Apple Daily published a photograph Tuesday of two South Asian men standing on a street in Jordan, with the caption: “South Asian men take off masks to have a smoke.”

In the photograph, one of the men is seen smoking a cigarette with his mask taken off, while the other is not smoking and wearing a face mask.

The newspaper published a video the following day, with the caption: “South Asian men don’t wear masks.”

In the video, a reporter walks down a street in the Yau Tsim Mong district, filming several South Asian men. A voiceover counts the number of ethnic minorities without face masks, as a “ding” sound tallies the count.

The Zubin Foundation, an non-government organisation that works to improve the lives of marginalised ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, condemned Ho’s remarks. It called for individuals and officials to be “more culturally sensitive” on Facebook.

“The ethnic minority community is a part of Hong Kong,” said Malik. “So when we are made to feel like the ‘outsider’, it can cause deep harm. We need to learn from episodes like these, remain calm, and educate one another about how to move forward. We want to be represented in society and we don’t want to feel marginalised.” 

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Rhea is a Hong Kong-based journalist interested in gender issues and minority rights, whose work has appeared in a number of publications across Asia. She is also on the 2019 Diversity List: a list of ethnic minorities that are qualified and committed to serve on Hong Kong government committees.