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Bittersweet Memories: a Holistic Picture of How Africans Are Treated During COVID-19 in Guangzhou

File photo of small alley in Guangzhou's African community. FRED DUFOUR / AFP

By China House Student Fellows Houming Ling, Lynn Yuhan Pan, Meng Zhao and Zach Ziye Zhang

“The African community in Guangzhou is on edge after widespread accounts were shared on social media of people being left homeless this week, as China’s warnings against imported coronavirus cases stoke anti-foreigner sentiment.”

CNN Journalists Jenni Marsh, Shawn Deng and Nectar Gan

Guangzhou, a commercial and manufacturing hub in southern China, is home to Asia’s largest populations of Africans. According to the official figures at the end of 2019, 13,652 Africans reside in the city.

In the past few months, heated discussions were triggered online by media reports addressing the “concerning” situations of Africans in Guangzhou during COVID-19, such as the CNN news article linked above. Some even considered the “unfair” treatment of Africans in China during COVID to be signs of racism. However, some field research[i] showed a different picture: some Africans said that they had been treated fairly. 

So, what is the reality?

Strict but Flexible Regulations

The empty street of Xiaobei in the morning, a highly African-concentrated residential district, after the COVID outbreak. Photo credit – Zach Ziye Zhang

The incident started in late March when domestic cases were nearly under control, and imported cases became the rising challenge in the combat against COVID-19. At such a moment, Guangzhou, one of the most diverse cosmopolises in China, was put under the global spotlight.

From Mar 21, the Guangzhou government began to conduct nucleic acid testing on all international personnel residing in the city. From Apr 4, Guangzhou has taken escalated measures, including precise investigations and comprehensive tests on all high-risk groups, mandatory 14-day quarantine for all imported passengers, and home & centralized quarantine for 15,000 people, including over 4,600 foreigners.

By Apr 11, Guangzhou had identified 119 imported cases of COVID-19, including 25 foreign nationals, among whom 76% were from African countries. Among the 13 new local cases, 12 infections have been traced back to imported African cases. Therefore, local authorities identified Africa as one of the primary sources of imported COVID-19 cases and began to screen for and quarantine all related personnel and contacts.

Overall, quarantine and testing regulations in Guangzhou were strict for Africans. 

D is a Guinean student. In late March, he flew back from Guinea to China. After completing a 17-day quarantine (first few days in Chengdu) and nine tests, he received a phone call from Guangzhou local officials informing him to keep staying indoors. 

As for Nigerian student F, though he never left China after the outbreak, he was told to quarantine at home for 14 days. He was tested three times, twice during the quarantine and the third one two weeks after.

But the quarantine policies in Guangzhou were not one-size-fits-all. They were subject to some changes in terms of the actual implementation. 

In fact, the quarantine period was not strictly required for two weeks everywhere. A community social worker said, “Most [foreign] people were quarantined for 8-9 days, except for those identified as close contacts. People who have been tested twice with negative results would be freed earlier.” Her words were confirmed by some Africans. J, a Liberian sneaker businessman, shared his experience: “I went to the quarantine with some Africans. We were at two hotels for less than 14 days.”

Social workers helping Africans settle down in quarantine hotels. Photo credit: Er Tang

When asked if he paid the hotel bill himself, J shook his head, “No. No. No. Totally free. Sleep free. Eat free. Then we took the tests for free, all of them. I took five tests.” “During quarantines, the government paid for the hotel and provided meals worth 30 CNY per meal for free. The additional needs of special groups (e.g., pregnant women) were met as well”, said the social worker when asked about the costs of the quarantine. 

Overall, most Africans could understand that most of the regulations and measures were implemented out of public health concerns. J mentioned that he understood the necessity. IG, a Nigerian businessman who has been in China for nine years, said, “The government’s request of us tested is good for us.” In April and May, he took a test once every five days on his expenses voluntarily. 

However, there were also opposing voices arguing that Africans were overly targeted. 

A checkpoint at the entrance of an African-concentrated community. Photo credit: Er Tang

D expressed his dissatisfaction, “Why just Africans? The virus problem is severe in Europe. Why doesn’t the government say that the Europeans mustn’t go outside? Or the Americans? But only Africans and Wuhanese? It is unfair!”

IG was also frustrated when required to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel, though he never left China after the outbreak. He was even more indignant when asked to pay by himself. “I told them I wouldn’t pay. I didn’t ask how much, because by asking how much, I’m saying I’m willing to pay even a little bit. It’s not about money! They are forcing all Africans to quarantine because they associate us with the virus. This is discrimination! I used to love my life in China so much, but this broke my heart.”

Fear and Rejection of Africans by Chinese Locals

Besides being affected by epidemic prevention measures, Africans in Guangzhou also encountered some inconvenience and difficulty in their daily interactions with Chinese locals, mainly due to their fear and rejection of “Virus carrying Africans” during the pandemic.

M, the secretary of the Nigerian chamber of commerce in Guangzhou, said, “Many Nigerians had difficulties in April. Some were kicked out from houses, and almost all restaurants were unwilling to host them. Many of us were annoyed by this. “

C, an African American teacher in an international school in Guangzhou, said that the reaction of Chinese around her and her family was visibly racist, which made her very uncomfortable. “In the subway, people move away from me and put on their mask when they see me.” 

D shared his similar experience. “This morning, I went up to two girls to borrow cellular hotspot because I didn’t have data. But the girls ran away from me like running away from the virus. I spoke to them in Chinese, ‘Don’t be afraid! I’m not a virus! I just want to borrow the hotspot.’ Then they stopped, perhaps because my Chinese sounded native. We had a friendly chat afterward, but I still feel hurt when thinking about their initial reaction.”

The fear of Chinese locals to engage with Africans were caused by exaggerated interpretations of officially published statistics and some online news stories. For instance, on Apr 2, a newly diagnosed Nigerian man had allegedly bitten a nurse who tried to stop him from leaving a local hospital. The story went viral on Chinese social media and caused a slew of negative feelings on Africans.

Y is a waitress in a restaurant in Xiaobei, one of the main African communities in Guangzhou. She admitted, “When the pandemic was serious, we didn’t serve foreigners. If they came in, we would tell them that we could provide no food.” 

Many cab drivers also expressed their concerns about carrying Africans during the pandemic. A cab driver said, “I definitely don’t have a problem with them now. Who has a problem with money, huh? But during the peak of the outbreak overseas, it was very different. None of my friends was willing to risk their lives for money by taking Africans. I would avoid going to areas where Africans are congregated. And some drivers would even just wave ‘No’ to Africans hailing cabs on the street.”

Local Government and Community Support

Despite the common rejections, some Africans had pleasant experiences with Guangzhou locals during the pandemic. Instead of being evicted by the landlord in some news, J highlighted his harmonious relationship with his considerate landlord. “My cash flow was not as smooth as before due to the COVID-19 situation. So, when I couldn’t pay the rent in time, I told my landlord that I would pay her as soon as I received my money. And she trusted me. Everything was fine.” 

Moreover, noticing the dilemma of Africans during the time, a group of young Chinese led by S, a graduate school student, spontaneously offered to help. They were well-organized: some translated regulations and documents, some assisted with accommodation difficulties, some delivered food, and others held a concert to disseminate African culture. Hundreds of Africans benefited from their actions.

The government also worked hard to cope with problems faced by Africans while fighting COVID-19. Mr.Wen, the mayor of Guangzhou, announced at a conference on Apr 12 that the government will treat Chinese and foreign citizens equally and take non-discriminatory prevention and control measures. 

Hence, the city government issued a public letter on Apr 19 which said, “No one may restrict or refuse certain groups of people to stay in hotels, rent houses, enter and exit communities, shopping malls, parks, and other public places, due to nationality, color, gender, or other reasons.”

Moreover, an anti-discrimination hotline was built after a meeting between the Chinese government and the Nigerian community leaders. 

T, a South African, felt heartened by this hotline. Once he was denied access to a supermarket despite his safe health code, he was frustrated, so he went to the police station for help. A policeman helped him out and told him, “It’s our responsibility to make sure no one is discriminated against here. If something similar happens again, call this number”. Not long afterward, T encountered a similar case, but he quickly solved the problem by dialing the hotline.

All in all, local government, administrative officers, social workers, volunteers, and residents all played roles in African’s life during the COVID-19 crisis. Though there used to be some misunderstandings and conflicts, most parties are now committed to fighting against both the discrimination and the virus, the living of Africans in Guangzhou today seem to progress for the better.

This research involved around 20 street interviews in Sanyuanli and Xiaobei, the African communities in Guangzhou, and several depth interviews with Africans originally from various countries and now living in Guangzhou.

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