ROME — The prestigious Santa Cecilia music school in Rome on Wednesday singled out “oriental” students, barring them from class over coronavirus concerns.
Students from East Asia studying in Italy learned of the move in a message from the conservatory’s director, Roberto Giuliani, sent to faculty members, who forwarded it by email and WhatsApp to those affected.
The message asked East Asian students not to show up for at least a week “due to the well-known events related to the Chinese epidemic,” and to undergo medical examinations before readmittance.
The announcement caught many students by surprise. Authorities had yet to confirm a single case of the virus in Italy.
For 25-year-old South Korean voice student Yoonseo Kim, the only possible explanation for the suspensions was racism.
“My friends don’t want to leave their homes because they’re afraid — of racism, of stares, of bad words,” she added. “It’s normal now.”
Shortly after the announcement, discriminatory comments appeared online, according to social media posts reviewed by The Washington Post.
The school asked affected student to leave classes shortly after the announcement went out, and staffers later stopped them in the lobby to bar them from entering the building, said one student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Several students described being mocked as they left the building by non-Asian students, who covered their faces in imitation of face masks and laughed.
“I was frozen. I couldn’t talk,” said 23-year-old South Korean student Sumin Hwang.
Giuliani said in an interview on Friday that he never meant to discriminate against students, and that students found to have used racially motivated insults would be punished. The school, he said, was inherently international and dedicated to students from abroad. He had in hand one message from a Chinese student who appeared to support the suspension order.
The required medical checkup, which the school would provide, he said, was supposed to help those without full access to the public health system.
Despite the controversy, the suspensions have not been lifted.
The episode underlined concerns that East Asian communities around the world have expressed in recent weeks as misinformation about the new coronavirus spreads, fueling stereotypes and discrimination. In one instance, widely circulated footage of a woman drinking bat soup provided supposed evidence that Chinese eating habits had allowed the virus to spread. The video — which was not even filmed in China — has since been debunked by fact-checking groups.
In Malaysia, an online petition that appeared to blame the spread of the virus on China’s supposed “unhygienic lifestyle” and called for a ban on Chinese visitors garnered more than 400,000 supporters within days.
In France, those facing discrimination took to social media — using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus, I’m not a virus — to push back against stereotypes.
“Institutionalized racism can easily be triggered by narratives of crisis,” said Aleksandra Lewicki, a senior lecturer of sociology at the University of Sussex in Britain.
Discrimination tied to the coronavirus is “reminiscent of the way Muslims have often had to explain themselves after terrorist attacks,” she said.
Some experts have also drawn parallels to the 2003 SARS outbreak that spread from China to countries including Canada and the United States, along with an attendant rise in discrimination against Asian minority communities.
At the time, Canadian lawyer Avvy Go represented Asian-Canadians whose landlords were trying to evict them because of the virus, or whose employers were seeking to reduce their working hours.
“We are [once again] seeing a lot of stigmatization and misinformation about the source of the virus,” she said, citing messages on WhatsApp and other platforms “telling people not to go to some of the local Chinese supermarkets,” along with “outright racist, hostile comments online.”
In recent days, nearly 10,000 Canadians signed a petition to temporarily ban some Chinese Canadian students from classrooms.
But much more so than in 2003, officials and members of the public are pushing back. A local school board swiftly rejected the petition.
Chinese diplomats have urged the international community to fight stigmatization. After Italy declared a state of emergency on Friday, in the wake of its first two confirmed cases, the Chinese Embassy in Rome asked the government to focus on the prevention of “episodes of intolerance” and to “protect the legitimate rights of Chinese citizens and communities in Italy.”
In Milan, Italian media outlets reported that groups of mothers were pushing for their children be separated from Chinese students at school.
In Venice, Chinese tourists reported being spat upon.
At the Santa Cecilia music school, some Italian students said they were considering a strike in support of their classmates from abroad.
“We want to show solidarity with colleagues who were arbitrarily denied the very important right to study,” said Francesco Campora, 26, a student at the school.
For some of the suspended students, that might not be enough.
“I used to love Rome,” said Sumin Hwang, one of the students told to stay home. “For two days now, I’ve been thinking of moving.”
“I cannot stay in a place that hates us,” she said.
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Noack reported from Berlin.