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Russia targets Chinese visitors over virus fear

2020-02-24 HKT 11:03
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  • A leaked email showed transport employees were told to watch out for Chinese passengers. Photo: AP
    A leaked email showed transport employees were told to watch out for Chinese passengers. Photo: AP
Bus drivers in Moscow kept their WhatsApp group chat buzzing with questions this week about what to do if they spotted passengers who might be from China travelling with them in the Russian capital.

“Some Asian-looking [people] have just got on. Probably Chinese. Should I call [the police]?” one driver messaged his peers. “How do I figure out if they’re Chinese? Should I ask them?” a colleague wondered.

The befuddlement reflected in screenshots of the group exchanges had a common source – instructions from Moscow's public transit operator for drivers to call a dispatcher if Chinese nationals boarded their buses, Russian media reported.

A leaked email that the media reports said was sent by the state-owned transportation company Mosgortrans told dispatchers who took such calls to notify the police. The email, which the company immediately described on Twitter as fake, carried a one-word subject line: coronavirus.

Since the outbreak of the new virus that has infected more than 76,000 people and killed more than 2,300 in mainland China, Russia has reported two cases. Both patients, Chinese nationals hospitalised in Siberia, recovered quickly. Russian authorities nevertheless are going to significant – some argue discriminatory – lengths to keep the virus from resurfacing and spreading.

Moscow officials ordered police raids of hotels, dormitories, apartment buildings and businesses to track down the shrinking number of Chinese people remaining in the city. They also authorised the use of facial recognition technology to find those suspected of evading a 14-day self-quarantine period upon their arrival in Russia.

“Conducting raids is an unpleasant task, but it is necessary, for the potential carriers of the virus as well,” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said in a statement outlining various methods to find and track Chinese people the city approved as a virus prevention strategy.

The effort to identify Chinese citizens on public transportation applies not only to buses, but underground trains and street trams in Moscow, Russian media reported.

Metro workers were instructed to stop riders from China and ask them to fill out questionnaires asking why they were in Russia and whether they observed the two-week quarantine, the reports said. The forms also ask respondents for their health condition and the address of where they are were staying.

In Yekaterinburg, a city located 1,790 kilometres away from Moscow in the Urals Mountains, members of the local Chinese community also are under watch. Self-styled Cossack patrols in the city hand out medical masks along with strong recommendations to visit a health clinic to Chinese residents.

Human rights advocates have condemned the targeting of Chinese nationals as racial profiling, not an effective epidemic control strategy.

“Prevention of any serious virus, be it a flu or the new coronavirus, should involve a proper information campaign and not discrimination of other people,” said Alyona Popova, an activist engaged in a year-long court challenge of Moscow's use of facial recognition technology.

The containment measures in the capital came as the Russian government instituted an indefinite ban on Chinese nationals entering the country that could block up to 90 percent of travellers coming to Russia from China. Weeks before, Russia shut down the country's long land border with China, suspended all trains and most flights between the two countries.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the city's containment approach and the accusation that it's discriminatory. But rights activist Popova insists the facial recognition program is unlawful whether the searches are seeking Russian or Chinese faces.

“We have a constitutional right to privacy, and citizens of [other countries] have it according to foreign and international legal norms,” she said.

The Moscow Metro rejected accusations of racial profiling. Subway workers “mainly look at the passenger’s [health] condition," an official said, and approach “people who need help”. (AP)