There is only one pandemic spreading faster than COVID-19—the anti-Asian prejudice and racism stirred up by it. This prejudice has grown beyond bias against China to ethnophobic characterizations of all Asian countries as disease-infested cultures.
As The Economist stated, “Ethnophobia triggered by the virus is sometimes subtle, and hard to separate from overblown fears of the pathogen itself.” Highly contagious viruses often cause widespread panic, but the coronavirus has moved one step further. The line between fears of the illness and fears of the cultures first afflicted by it must be clear.
In February, a high school friend of mine reported that a host family with whom she was supposed to stay over spring break declined to host her out of fear of the virus. It ought to be noted that (a) she is Japanese, not Chinese; (b) she had not even traveled home or any place in Asia since the outbreak was first detected in December; and (c) this occurred before the virus had reached Japan. This host family associated this disease with her Asian identity. They assumed that because she is from Asia, she is more likely to carry the virus, despite having not come into contact with it.
“They assumed that because she is from Asia, she is more likely to carry the virus, despite having not come into contact with it.”
In a social media post about “managing fears and anxiety” regarding the virus, University of California Berkeley’s health services center listed xenophobia toward Asian people as a “normal reaction.” We cannot normalize these mentalities. It is one thing to have anxiety around the illness, but it is another thing entirely to create ignorant biases against entire cultures based on this outbreak. To have this sentiment coming from an elite educational institution is even worse as it lends credibility for those with biases against Asian cultures.
The virus has not created these racist thoughts, however; it has simply brought them to light. As Los Angeles resident Katherine Lu stated to the Los Angeles Times, “The coronavirus is an opportunity for them to safely express their racist thoughts in a way that can be excused.” But we can’t let this be an excuse. If anything, an outbreak such as the coronavirus ought to provoke global solidarity, not cultural enmity.
In fact, in the face of this crisis, Director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Dr. Nancy Messonnier warned, “Do not assume that if someone is of Asian descent, they have coronavirus.” Still, people have created assumptions and fears not based in medical fact. Before schools were forced to shut down nationwide, Asian students on campuses across the country reported receiving suspicious looks any time they coughed or sneezed. When we spread racist fears instead of medical realities, we put everyone, including ourselves, at greater risk.
Leaders at the highest levels of government have already crossed the line into sheer racism. On March 8, Secretary of State Mark Pompeo referred to the strain as the “Wuhan Virus” during a news conference. China’s foreign ministry condemned this as “highly irresponsible.” On March 16, shortly after announcing nationwide guidelines regarding business closures and congregating in groups of 10 or more, President Trump tweeted that “The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus.” After being criticized for these racist remarks, Trump responded, “It’s not racist at all. No, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.” Trump has never cared for accuracy before; no, this is just an excuse to let his racist biases fly. If you want to be accurate, President Trump, call it COVID-19, not your stylized “CoronaVirus,” and certainly not “the Chinese Virus.”
We cannot let our fears dictate the way we treat each other. We cannot allow this outbreak to serve as an excuse to kindle fears we have of other cultures or of immigrants in this country living all around us. Rather than making base judgements off of xenophobic fears, let’s all strive to understand this disease. Let’s understand how we can coexist while using preventative measures to keep it from spreading. Let’s understand the symptoms and know what it looks like so that we aren’t suspicious of any Asian person who coughs in our vicinity. The solution lies in education and joint eradication efforts, not in discrimination and division.