By D James, cover photo by Joe Kibria on Unsplash

“Fuck you! Go back to your own country!”

These racist words were hurled at Xi in London late one mid-March 2020 evening by a young white man who approached him in a threatening manner on a busy street as he walked home after a 12-hour day working in the small nail and beauty salon he owns nearby. Xi didn’t respond or make eye contact with his aggressor and quickly hurried away.

The UK had its first confirmed cases of Covid-19 on January 29th when two Chinese nationals fell ill in a hotel in York. A month later in late February the first human-to-human transmission of the virus was confirmed, and within ten days, further cases were reported in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. 

On the evening of March 3rd, a 23-year-old Singapore Chinese student was seriously beaten by a group of teenagers in a racially aggravated assault on London’s famous and crowded Oxford Street, breaking several bones in his face. One of the teens shouted “We don’t want your coronavirus in our country” during the attack. 

Similar racist verbal and physical attacks, mostly directed towards Chinese students were being reported throughout the UK, and by March 17th there were media reports of Chinese students fleeing the UK to return to China because of the racist ‘maskaphobia’ incidents. Despite these abhorrent incidents, the UK government was slow to react, and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, still had not commented on the rise in coronavirus-link racism by mid-March. 

Pandemics can certainly intensify fears of ‘the other’, as recent ugly incidents in Guangzhou directed towards Africans demonstrate. Racism spilling over into hatred, misplaced blame and outright physical aggression, like the coronavirus, knows no national boundaries. The disgraceful behaviour of some in the UK during this pandemic is not an exception, but another illustration of the rule that in times of fear and uncertainty, both the best and worst of humanity are likely to surface.

Which takes us back to Xi. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that he is a refugee who first arrived in the UK about 15 years ago. After immediately requesting asylum, his case was not acted upon by the Home Office for several years, due to the backlog of cases, an austerity-driven Conservative government that cut back severely on most all services after the Banking Crisis of 2008, and a publicly-stated ‘Hostile Environment’ policy towards immigrants by the then Home Office Secretary, Theresa May, which continued while she was Prime Minister as well. 

During these several years, Xi was in ‘no man’s land’. He could legally stay in the UK while his asylum application was pending, but without any work permission, social or health care safety net, or many legal protections. There have been tens of thousands of such desperate adults and children at the bottom of the UK society for the past 15 or so years. People who can not earn a living legally, are often homeless, facing an uncertain present and even more uncertain future with the ever-increasing dawn raids by Home Office enforcement officers attempting to deport them.

Eventually, Xi found a helpful solicitor, after many other attempts of using both legal aid and private lawyers yielded no results, as the Home Office would not even respond to their written inquiries about the status of his case. After another 18 months following the new solicitor finally establishing contact with the Home Office and demanding a review, Xi received a favourable ruling granting him Leave to Remain in the UK for an initial period of five years with the status of an approved asylum seeker. Importantly Leave to Remain grants full human rights such as work permission, educational opportunities, health care access, a travel document, ID card, and a clear pathway to Permanent Residence and UK citizenship. 

In times of fear and uncertainty, both the best and worst of humanity are likely to surface

D James

Things were indeed looking up for Xi. He enrolled in an English language course and then completed a National Vocational Qualification in manicure, pedicure, and related beauty treatments that are strictly regulated in the UK. His level of certification allowed him to not only work in the field but also own and manage his own shop. And this is what happened after a few years working for other salons when he began his own start-up salon business from the ground up. As anyone knows who has begun a start-up small business, it owns you as much as you own it. Xi worked relentlessly 24/7 to build his business to a level of success where it was making money and paying off its debts. That also meant Xi was contributing to the London economy through paying personal and business taxes and high commercial rent and related expenses, providing work opportunities for others, as well as providing excellent services to his customers. And then the Covid-19 pandemic spread to the UK from Xi’s home country.

On March 23rd, after some weeks of dithering on which policies to implement, Boris Johnson announced the beginning of the UK lockdown that included staying home, preventing social gatherings, and shutting down all non-essential businesses immediately. Of course, that included Xi’s salon. During the days leading up to the lockdown announcement, business was furious in his salon, as customers anticipated what was to come. Xi was working 14-hour days due to the demand as well as trying, like all small businesses, to make as much as possible in light of the uncertain financial future that was to come. He dutifully locked up his salon on the night of March 23rd and walked away from the business he had built and had built him for the past several years without knowing when or even if he could return.

And then on March 25th, Xi developed a fever and a dry cough. With no testing available, he self-isolated and monitored his condition. Soon came the intense headaches, severe body aches, extreme fatigue, terrifying dreams, and sudden loss of smell and taste. And lots and lots of TCM herbal remedies, vitamins, nasal sprays, and anything Chinese social media groups recommended trying to keep the virus from spreading too deeply into his lungs. 

After two weeks and two days of not knowing if he was going to live or die, Xi’s fever finally broke, the cough and other active symptoms disappeared, and eventually, even his sense of smell and taste returned. Others have not fared so well. As of the 12th of May, there have been 223,000 reported and confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK and 32,065 confirmed deaths, now the highest death rate in Europe.

Meanwhile, the social and economic lockdown has been extended, and the UK government seems very cautious about reopening the society and economy and loosening restrictions in fear of a second wave of the virus, especially without a robust testing and tracking system in place. Most likely a phased-in approach will be announced shortly, with more gradual openings and targeted restrictions likely. For example, there is talk of cinemas and some schools reopening at some point, but with social distancing still being enforced as well as some type of symptom screening.

But where does that leave Xi and his salon? There has been no talk about when or how such personal service businesses can reopen. This will certainly be a big challenge for the government to figure out and is not likely to be addressed and solved any time soon. In the meantime, the landlord still demands exorbitant rent on an empty building and has shown no signs of being willing to renegotiate either a ‘rent holiday’ or reduced rent. 

So almost 15 years after arriving in the UK, Xi once again faces a very uncertain future, as do so many others who struggle to survive at or near the bottom of a society, whether they are international or domestic migrants. Covid-19 does indeed threaten us all. But it would be false and foolish to not recognise that like all other threats, Covid-19 disproportionally affects the most vulnerable of us, including those who risked their lives to be part of our society and continue to risk their lives daily to serve the rest of us. Perhaps Xi’s story will come to mind, the next time we get a haircut or manicure or foot massage by those ‘others’ who invisibly live side-by-side with the rest of their communities.