Victims of ‘coronavirus racism’ uneasy with Maltese behaviour

The COVID-19 panic comes with a threat of nativist suspicion towards the people who became major contributors to the Maltese economy

Victims of racism and discrimination said that COVID-19 anxiety in Malta had made them the target of misplaced prejudice
Victims of racism and discrimination said that COVID-19 anxiety in Malta had made them the target of misplaced prejudice

Foreigners have often been accosted for not wearing masks in public as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Malta, with non-natives speaking to MaltaToday saying they have been made uneasy by Maltese reactions.

Victims of racism and discrimination said that COVID-19 anxiety in Malta had made them the target of misplaced prejudice.

“Wearing a mask and being Asian has become synonymous with the coronavirus,” Chia Liu said.

Liu, 29, and a student in Malta, said that she and her friends have often been subjected to verbal attacks when outside the school environment in St Julian’s. “I have lived in Europe for six years and this is my first time feeling uncomfortable and insecure in a European country,” she said, as she recalled a particular episode where she felt threatened for the first time.

“I walked past a shop in St Julian’s and two employees – who were not wearing a mask – saw me and referred to me as a walking coronavirus. Out on the street, my friends have experienced the same thing. A particular shop has even refused to take our money.

“We have been seeing increased discrimination and racist behaviour towards Asians, and this is a serious issue to us who are living in Malta to study or to work. We don’t feel secure at all,” Liu said.

Chris Hsu
Chris Hsu

Chris Hsu, 27, also a student in Malta, said that coronavirus anxiety had even manifested itself as an altercation on the bus.

“While on the bus, someone scolded me. They told me that I need to wear a protective mask. I said that I was from Taiwan, not China, but they referred to me as a coronavirus. Other students on the bus stood up for me,” he explained.

On 7 March, Malta reported its first case of COVID-19, an infectious disease caused by a novel virus that originated in Wuhan in China at the end of last year.

The first cases in Malta were imported and involved an Italian family returning from a holiday in Trentino.

Luca Piccio, an Italian man who had been working at a restaurant in Birkirkara up until last week, said that besides being worried about his future on the island – his home of five years – he had also experienced discrimination, which had unsettled him.

“I have never experienced this before, so it was quite a shock. I was on the bus, and was talking to a friend on the phone. Someone who was standing heard me speaking Italian and he started leering at me.

“He started mumbling to himself in Maltese before he addressed me and told me in Italian that I had brought the virus to Malta. A woman seated nearby joined in and told me to go back to my country and started shouting in Maltese. I felt so uncomfortable that I got off the bus before I reached my destination,” he told MaltaToday.

Foreigners from other countries are worried about their future but they too say they observed ‘coronavirus racism’ being levelled at friends or other individuals.

Stella Wicha
Stella Wicha

Stella Wicha, 30, works in the gaming sector and is originally from Poland. Speaking to MaltaToday, she said that she had never encountered any form of racism towards herself and had been generally pleased in Malta, making friends and feeling welcome. Lately, this had changed.

“I see racism towards foreigners on a daily basis on the internet. Comments on Facebook are shocking. In the beginning, I was very happy here. I felt a lot of freedom, felt accepted by locals and met the most amazing people in my life. After some time, I started noticing that a lot of locals wanted to just take advantage of us and they drastically increased rents – especially when one mentions they work in gaming,” she said.

Wicha made reference to economy minister Silvio Schembri’s comments in parliament, since retracted, about the government first seeking to aid the Maltese and that foreigners who lose their jobs would have to return to their home country.

“Seeing this makes me question if I really see myself here once our life gets back to normal. I think that nothing is going to be the same again and what was said about foreigners will always be remembered and cannot be revoked,” she said.

Wicha thinks that with COVID-19 spreading in Malta, most locals might believe that foreign workers have outlasted their use and are seen as a burden and a potential threat to the healthcare system.

She said that while she, herself, had had very good relations with landlords, others have not been so lucky, referring to friends who have been taken advantage of. “I have this impression that instead of accepting some criticism and thinking about the way to improve themselves, they tell you the famous ‘go back to you country’. I am shocked whenever I read online forums or open any Facebook page. Nowadays, it’s full of blame and poison thrown towards foreigners.

“During this crisis, we got to see that we don’t really matter to most locals as when we were in need: we were told to leave the country,” she said.