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Leadership for good: combating viral panic, misinformation and racism

When fear of disease mutates into prejudice and xenophobia

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, a new wave of racial prejudices is rising. Our panel, including an epidemiologist, a historian and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, examine this problem.

The outbreak of disease is always accompanied by fear. But amid the threat of the novel coronavirus – which first emerged in Wuhan, China – this fear has taken on a racial dimension, which is creating further division in our society. 

Australia's multiculturalism is much touted as a success. Yet our response to the outbreak reveals a more uncertain picture. The Australian government has imposed a travel ban against China. It has also evacuated Australian citizens in the affected area of Wuhan to Christmas Island for quarantine. 

Has the right balance been struck? Or have these responses created unnecessary anxiety and stigma? Australian doctors have warned of the rise of racial abuse; Asian-Australians have reported experiencing discrimination in workplaces, public spaces and online. The spread of misinformation campaigns have fueled renewed xenophobia, and suspicion towards Chinese and Asian Australians.

Does this mark the return of an old racism? Does it signal a retreat from cultural progress? And what role must universities play in responding to these challenges? Ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, join us for this critical conversation unpacking the systematic issues in combating racism today. 

This event was held on Monday 2 March, 2020 at the University of Sydney. It  was co-presented with the University of Sydney Culture StrategyChina Studies Centre and Mosaic Network.

The speakers

Jenny Leong is the Member for Newtown in the NSW State Parliament and the Greens NSW spokesperson for Multiculturalism and Human Rights. She was first elected in 2015 and is a passionate advocate for equality, justice, and human rights – and has a long track record of standing up and speaking out against racism, sexism, discrimination and the politics of fear.

Earlier in her career, Jenny worked for Amnesty International as a crisis coordinator and campaign manager in London, Hong Kong, and Sydney. While studying at the University of Sydney, she held leadership roles as a fellow on the University of Sydney Senate and as President of the Sydney University Postgraduate Association.

The daughter of a Chinese Australian father who came from Malaysia to study as an international student and an Anglo mother from working class Melbourne, Jenny was born in Adelaide. Like William Yang – the Sydney-based artist has said of himself, she did not come out as a Chinese Australian until later in life. Now she is a proud ABC (Australian Born Chinese), and is honoured to be one of the very few elected members of parliament with Chinese heritage.

Sophie Loy-Wilson is an Australian historian who specialises in the social and cultural history of Australia's engagement with China. Her research is on labour rights and Chinese 'coolie' migration to Australia and the Pacific.

Prior to taking up a position in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, she worked as a Postdoctoral fellow in the Laureate Research Program in International History, a Lecturer and Faculty Member at Deakin University and as a research fellow in the 'Contemporary Histories' program at the Alfred Deakin Institute. Sophie has also worked with Chinese Australian community groups to preserve the archives of the overseas Chinese diaspora in Australia.

Abbey Shi is general secretary at the University of Sydney Student Representative Council. She was a key organiser of a petition that called for a delay in the start of semester at the University, as a considerable number of the student cohort will not be able to return to Australia due to the travel ban.

Tim Soutphommasane is Professor of Practice (Sociology and Political Theory). He is also Director, Culture Strategy at the University.

A political theorist and human rights advocate, from 2013 to 2018 Tim was Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner. His thinking on patriotism, multiculturalism and national identity has been influential in debates in Australia and Britain.

In 2008 Michael Spence was appointed the 25th Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney. An alumnus of the University of Sydney, Michael graduated with first-class honours in English, Italian and law. His other languages include Chinese and Korean.

Michael lectured in law at the University and worked for the Australian Copyright Council before leaving Australia and establishing himself at the University of Oxford, where he obtained a Doctor of Philosophy and a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology.

Ying Zhang is a senior epidemiologist with over 15 years' experience on conducting research on climate and health. Ying has a MBBS, Master of Medical Science, Master of Sustainability, Master of Education, and PhD in Public Health.

Ying's research focuses on building community resilience to changing climate and environment, especially for the most vulnerable populations in the Asia Pacific Region. Ying co-chairs the MJA-Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate in Australia. She is currently a Board member of Australian Climate and Health Alliance and Global Climate and Health Alliance, Treasurer of the Australasian Epidemiological Association.

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