Conspiracy Theories and Other Stories

I’m beginning to fear my family’s Whatsapp chat. My Chinese Singaporean parents are in their late 60s and aren’t very good with technology, but sadly they’ve learned how to share videos and memes on the platform. Despite the Singapore Government’s crackdown on fake news, quite a few things they’ve shared won’t exactly meet any sort of journalistic standard, let’s put it at that. I’ve no idea how to fix this, and I’m not alone–several of my friends bemoan the “auntie-uncle conspiracy theory network”, as we call our parents and older relatives’ group chats on Whatsapp, Facebook, and other more accessible social media networks. It puzzles me that this is even a problem. Our parents are often highly educated, business-savvy people who have seen a lot of life and of the world. Why is it then that I had to wake up on the weekend to my dad, a retired robotics engineer, sharing a screenshot of an article claiming that India has few coronavirus cases because they eat a lot of curry, which contains turmeric, which conveys some sort of magic protection against the virus? In 2015, there was a H1N1 pandemic in India that tragically killed 2,035 people. 2015 wasn’t that long ago, and besides, India has 3 COVID-19 cases.

The spread of conspiracy theories haven’t been limited to the older people social media network groups, though. Some of the spread of fake news can be sourced to government officials who really should know better. A “COV-19 is a bioweapon!” BS theory could be traced to Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton on Faux News, who had to take to Twitter to clarify that he didn’t say it was true, only that it was possible. No, it’s not — it’s a fringe conspiracy theory that’s been debunked. Political fake news conspiracies by American Senators who lack empathy aside, fear has always been an easy way of making people completely lose their sh*t. Armed gangs in Hong Kong recently stole toilet paper rolls as panic buying hit the city. Via BBC:

Knife wielding men robbed a delivery man outside a supermarket in the Mong Kok district, police said.

Police have arrested two men and recovered some of the stolen loo rolls, local media reports said.

The armed robbery took place in Mong Kok, a district of Hong Kong with a history of “triad” crime gangs, early on Monday.

According to local reports, the robbers had threatened a delivery worker who had unloaded rolls of toilet paper outside Wellcome Supermarket.

An Apple Daily report said that 600 toilet paper rolls, valued at around HKD1,695 ($218; £167), had been stolen.

Toilet paper robberies? Is this how the end begins? Outbreak, World War Z, and the Andromeda Strain never prepared us for this. Dystopian fiction is one of my favourite genres in games, books, and film: it’s fun trekking through the sun-blasted irradiated wastelands of Fallout, listening to old jazz songs. Of all the hundreds of ways I’ve read about the world ending, though I didn’t expect stupidity to be one of them, but two months into 2020, I’m beginning to think that it’s the most likely end-of-days scenario.

The Virus of Fear

Recently, one of the most popular restaurants in Melbourne’s Chinatown closed. Sharks Fin House has been kicking around since 1989. It was already a staple on Chinatown when I first came to Melbourne in 2002, and back then, you couldn’t order much at yum cha unless you could speak Cantonese. Because of Sharks Fin House, I memorised Cantonese words for my fav yum cha dishes. I went there on Chinese New Year weekend with a friend, and it looked busy. I guess you never know. The closures have been hitting Sydney’s Chinatown hard as well. Via Goodfood:

Struggling restaurant owners in Sydney’s Chinatown say they have lost as much as 85 per cent of their business due to the coronavirus outbreak blocking Chinese tourists and students from coming to Sydney.

On Thursday the federal government extended the travel ban for all non-Australians travelling from China for at least another week as the death toll from the virus continues to surge.

The effect of that travel ban is plain to see in Haymarket where foot traffic is well below the usual bustling level. The Sun Herald and Good Food visited multiple restaurants in Chinatown this week and each of them reported vast falls in patronage and revenue.

Australia only has 15 cases, and they’re all contained. There’s no reason to just stop eating an entire region’s cuisine out of fear, but here we are. The problem isn’t limited to Australia. Chinatowns across America are also experiencing economic crises. Via Eater:

The Times reports that NYC’s three main Chinatowns — in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn — have seen business drop from 50 to 70 percent in the last two weeks. The owners of restaurants like historic Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan describe their environs as a “ghost town,” telling Grub Street that business had reached a five-year slowdown last Monday.

Steve Ip, owner of Yin Ji Chang Fen, tells the Times that he’s been expecting crowds of international students visiting New York-based family during the Lunar New Year: They haven’t materialized, and business at Yin Ji Chang Fen is down by half.

The phenomenon is widespread. Restaurants in Boston’s Chinatown are suffering, too: At a time when businesses like New Golden Gate Seafood Restaurant are normally bustling, that establishment and others are practically empty, Boston radio station WBUR reports. Business leaders in Houston’s Chinatown are seeing the same situation. The owner of Houston’s Shabu house, Debbie Chen, tells Houston TV station KPRC2 news that she’s worried about being able to pay her staff. Internationally, Chinatowns in London and Sydney observe declining business as well.

It isn’t just food places that will be feeling the sting. With much of the world shutting out a major economy and manufacturing hub out of flights, some even restricting cargo imports, the impact on the global economy is going to hit hard. UBS has estimated that coronavirus could cost Australia $1billion in services exports. Via ABC:

While they say it is far too early to know the total cost, just the group travel ban by the Chinese Government, which will stop many tourists leaving the country during the peak Lunar New Year holiday period, could directly cost Australia at least $1 billion in services exports.

“However, if travel disruptions are extended, or expand to cover independent travellers, the cost could be much greater,” the report warned. Global share markets have fallen only modestly since the coronavirus outbreak intensified, but some sectors such as travel and leisure have been hit much harder than others.

“Due to the virus, currently we expect only mild downgrades to global economic growth and corporate profits,” Nikko Asset Management’s chief global strategist John Vail wrote in a note.

“China will be affected the most but, as it is such an important country for supply chains and its demand for goods and services (especially its large tourist contribution), other countries will feel some pain too, at least temporarily.

We do need an effective, rational, well-funded, controlled approach to containing COVID-19. I’m glad that people are racing to produce a vaccine. Illnesses are scary, pandemics even more so. People have died. Our focus should be on flattening the curve in a hopefully rational way. Hoarding essential supplies can hurt people (such as the low income or homeless) who rely on them normally for a living.

Follow the guidelines: wash your hands often (and for 20 seconds each time), use hand sanitizers, try not to touch your face too often. If you’re ill, stay home. If you suspect you have COVID-19, call in ahead. These are all rational ways we can respond to what’s happening. Racism is not rational.

Fighting Conspiracy Theories… With Your Stomach

My fears are perhaps a little self-serving. If the ban extends to Singapore and other Asian countries, the visits of family and friends will be curtailed, my own freedom of movement will be restricted, and the “No Chinese People Allowed” ban at certain businesses around the world might envelop the rest of us: the most populous ethnicity in the world. Melbourne, I hope, will be continue to be pretty good about this. There’s a benefit to living in extremely hipster cities. I’m not afraid to clear my throat on public transport–at least, not yet.

In the meantime, support your local Asian business. They’d probably need it — especially the restaurants. Sharks Fin House might be gone for good, but here’s a few I can think of offhand still kicking around Melbourne CBD that’d be good for a delicious feed:

  • Dainty Sichuan, Various
  • Din Tai Fung: Emporium, 4 Emporium, 287 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000
  • Golf Leaf: District Docklands, 10-11 Star Cres, Docklands VIC 3008
  • Hawker Chan: 157 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000
  • HuTong: 14-16 Market Ln, Melbourne VIC 3000
  • Lee Ho Fook: 11-15 Duckboard Pl, Melbourne VIC 3000
  • Panda Hot Pot: 100 Victoria St, Carlton VIC 3053
  • Secret Kitchen: 222 Exhibition St, Melbourne VIC 3000
  • Shandong Mama: Mid City, 7/200 Bourke St, Melbourne VIC 3000
  • Supper Inn: Level 1/15 Celestial Ave, Melbourne VIC 3000

There are also great restaurants over at Box Hill and beyond. Most of all, don’t freak out. And for the love of God, don’t rob people for toilet paper.

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