COVID-19: Human Rights Commission records 30pct spike in racially motivated attacks

Sammy Zhu after the attack.
Sammy Zhu after the attack. Photo credit: Newshub

New Zealand may be past its peak in COVID-19 cases - but there's another upward curve that hasn't been managed.

There has been a 30 percent spike in racially motivated attacks against ethnic minorities.

And in this Because it Matters investigation, Newshub looks at the battle for their voice to be heard before it sparks another crisis - in mental health.

In the 20 years Sammy Zhu has lived in New Zealand, he's made a career out of photographing the beauty of local stories.

But on the first day of the move down from lockdown to level 3 he became part of an ugly national story near Riverside Market in Christchurch.

On April 28, he was photographing the city coming out of lockdown and said 'hello' to a man he passed standing on a bench.

Next thing, he heard rapid footsteps behind him.

"I was punched by a stranger I don't know," Zhu says.

Zhu was bleeding heavily from his head and eye. He says the attack was racially motivated. 

"I still feel not comfortable to come to here because it's a very sad story for me," he says.

"Personally it's not safe enough to me and particularly towards Asian communities, including Chinese community, because of COVID-19 pandemic."

Zhu's case is not isolated since lockdown, and some of it has been caught on camera.

The day after Sammy was attacked in Christchurch, an elderly Asian man was beaten in the Auckland suburb of Lynfield. 

A witness who did not want to appear on camera told Newshub a man called out "go back to China". When the Asian man turned and shrugged, the attacker ran towards him and started punching him to the ground. 

The victim refused to go to the police because he didn't want to cause a fuss, but like Zhu he was bleeding and badly injured.

Zhu has quit his job as a photographer because he's scared to meet new people every day.

"The physical injury will heal over time but mental trauma will take much longer," he says.

The Human Rights Commission information line has had a 30 percent spike in reports of racially motivated attacks.  

And that's something Kelly Feng is seeing at Asian Family Services - both a national helpline and counselling service for the ethnic communities.

Their calls doubled from 162 calls in May - to nearly 400 last month. Demand is so high, there's a waitlist for callbacks to people of all ages.

"We were seeing a girl, 12-years-old, and being bullied at school - being called 'virus' and 'go back to China'," Feng says.

In the end the family had to take out their child from the school.

Research commissioned by Feng has found 43.9 percent of Asians living here have experienced some form of mental health distress since the beginning of lockdown.

"We don't want to see more people presenting to us in the crisis situation and adding more burden on the health sector as well," Feng says.

The president of the New Zealand Chinese Association, Richard Leung, says even families who have been here since the goldrush of the 1800s have been told to go back home.

"How long do you have to be here to belong?" he asks. "We're all meant to be part of the team of five million."

Leung wrote to the Prime Minister asking her to directly address racism directed towards the Chinese community.

He says he hasn't seen any messaging yet.

But Jacinda Ardern did write back. She says she's always made "very very clear" COVID is no place for discrimination.

"I would say 'hello' again if we see each other again but I do hope this time he can do his bit differently," Zhu says.

"And I also want to tell New Zealand is my home."

A home he no longer feels safe in.