BY VANESSA BLAS
The first case of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, was reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and has spread to 185 countries in just three months.1,2 However, the virus is not the only outbreak that is spreading rapidly–the pandemic has become racialized, targeting millions of Asians and Asian Americans.
COVID-19 is not the first instance in which a disease has been linked to one’s race or identity. At the beginning of the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, many people believed only Haitians and people in the LGBTQ+ community could acquire AIDS, initially referred to as GRID, or gay-related immunodeficiency.3-5 In Washington State, some Americans refused to shake the hands of all Africans during the peak of the 2014 Ebola epidemic, although the outbreak was centered in West Africa, specifically Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.6 Furthermore, North America has a long and dark history of associating Asians and Asian Americans with disease. In 1900, the San Francisco Board of Health decided to quarantine and prevent Asian residents from leaving the Chinatown neighborhood in fear that they would spread a plague due to their “exotic” and “dirty” eating and hygienic practices.7 In 2003, Asians became the scapegoats of the SARS virus, which caused Asian-owned businesses in Toronto to lose about 80% of their income.5,8 With the rise of the coronavirus, this racism has resurfaced and infected the households and businesses of Asians across the globe. The media and government are to blame for this grievous repeat of history.
When the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Manhattan, The New York Post perpetuated the racist “Asians-cause-disease” stereotype by using a picture of an Asian man wearing a mask to catch the attention of the public.9 President Trump has begun calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” instead of its scientific name, COVID-19.10,11 The White House has supported him using this term, which he claims is not racist, despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) assertion that the virus should be referred to as COVID-19 since it has no nationality.12,13, 14
WHO has emphasized that the virus is not bound to one group or identity,14 asserting that calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” is incorrect and xenophobic, and President Trump’s use of the label condones Anti-Chinese sentiment in America. Popular newspapers and media outlets should immediately rebuke the President’s language to mitigate the damage he has caused. An article from The New York Times simply reported Trump’s defense of the label instead of focusing on how the action is highly xenophobic. The negative effects of his actions have already appeared. Shortly after President Trump began calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” CBS News correspondent and Chinese American Weijia Jiang tweeted that while conversing with a White House official, they had referred to the virus as the “Kung-Flu.”13 In a recent interview, Texas senator John Cornyn claimed that Chinese culture and dietary habits are the source of the coronavirus and similar diseases.16 Fox News TV anchor Tucker Carlson only refers to the virus as the “Chinese Virus,” and the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the term “Wuhan virus” when describing the pandemic.13 This prejudice is present not only at the government and media level but in numerous communities across the country.
Cities and towns with large East Asian communities face the biggest blow. In New York City, an Asian woman wearing a face mask–which is a common and healthy norm many East Asians practice during the annual flu season–was assaulted by a man, who called her a “diseased b****.”17 A Los Angeles man in the subway yelled at a Thai American passenger for being a “filthy Chinese,” and claimed that Chinese people cause all diseases.17 Two hotels in Indiana refused to accept two Asian citizens as guests because they feared they would carry and spread the virus.17 High schoolers have made racist comments to their Asian American peers, such as claiming that all Asians are disgusting.18 Aside from the verbal assaults, this Anti-Chinese sentiment, coupled with the fear of acquiring COVID-19, has hurt the Asian and Asian American community in quieter, but just as devastating ways.
Similar to what happened during the 2003 SARS outbreak Chinese businesses and restaurants have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic.8, 17, 19 Chinese restaurants that usually seat more than 100 customers a day, like David Zheng’s New Shanghai Deluxe Restaurant in New York’s Chinatown, now serve around 20-30 customers on their busiest days.17 Most of the employees in these Chinese restaurants have not even traveled to Wuhan, China during the outbreak, but customers continue to cancel their reservations or refuse to order food in fear that they can be exposed to the virus.17 Asian business owners in Boston, San Francisco, and London recently reported sharp sales declines since the start of the outbreak, and some have even sent messages to their customers to clarify that they should continue to shop at their store or restaurants, as they are following CDC hygiene protocols.18-19
One can note that this decline in consumerism can be attributed to the lock-downs many cities have recently enforced and thereby preventing citizens from outside-dining or shopping, but there still seems to be an intentional avoidance of ordering take-out Chinese food.2,19 Meanwhile, there have been zero reports on active avoidance of Italian restaurants or stores despite the fact that Italy is now considered one of the epicenters of the pandemic.2 Although public health experts say it is irrational to abstain from Chinese restaurants in order to avoid the virus, Americans continue to do this very action, hurting Asian families who rely on their businesses and restaurants for income. Not only do Asian families have the general anxiety about staying healthy during a pandemic, but they must now deal with the harmful effects of being a scapegoat for the virus while worrying about how they can financially support themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the frailties of the health care system and the government’s preparation for a viral outbreak, but it has also shown how prominent racism still is in the country.
The government has failed in protecting East Asians from this blatant racism, but change can start at a smaller level. A pandemic is not an excuse for racism. Rather than being a complacent bystander, allies should help defend those who are the target of racism and report any actions of hate towards Asians and Asian Americans. An ally does not even have to be as loud as the perpetrator–standing next to the victim and showing that one is there to help is a sign of comfort and solidarity that may speak louder than words. Supporting a local Asian business or restaurant by ordering take-out food or purchasing gift cards, correcting any misinformation about COVID-19, and refraining from calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” are also possible ways to reduce the harm that has been done by the media and several government officials. These small acts of kindness and human decency go a long way and are sorely needed during these difficult times.
Vanessa Blas is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight majoring in anthropology. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Zhu, N., et. al (2020). A Novel Coronavirus from Patients with Pneumonia in China, 2019. New England Journal of Medicine, 382(8), 727-733. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa2001017. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa2001017
- Organization, W. H. (2020). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
- Altman, L. K. (1981). Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals. The New York Times.
- Dubois, L. (1996). A spoonful of blood: Haitians, Racism and AIDS. Science as Culture, 6(1), 7-43. doi:10.1080/09505439609526454
- Schram, J. (2003). How popular perceptions of risk from SARS are fermenting discrimination. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 326(7395), 939-939. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1125856/.
- Brown, D. L., & Constable, P. (2014). West Africans in Washington say they are being stigmatized because of Ebola fears. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/west-africans-in-washington-say-they-are-being-stigmatized-because-of-ebola-fear/2014/10/16/39442d18-54c6-11e4-892e-602188e70e9c_story.html
- Kalisch, P. A. (1972). The Black Death in Chinatown: Plague and Politics in San Francisco 1900-1904. Arizona and the West, 14(2), 113-136. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/40168068.
- Fang, J. (2020). The 2003 SARS outbreak fueled anti-Asian racism. Coronavirus doesn’t have to. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/02/04/2003-sars-outbreak-fueled-anti-asian-racism-this-pandemic-doesnt-have/
- Campanile, C., & Hogan, B. (2020). First case of coronavirus confirmed in New York City. The New York Post. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2020/03/01/first-case-of-coronavirus-confirmed-in-manhattan/?utm_source=url_sitebuttons&utm_medium=site%20buttons&utm_campaign=site%20buttons
- House, T. W. (2020). Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing [Press release]
- Bedard, P. (2020). White House: ‘Call it what it is — the China Virus’. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/washington-secrets/white-house-call-it-what-it-is-the-china-virus.
- WhiteHouse [WhiteHouse]. (2020). Spanish Flu. West Nile Virus. Zika. Ebola. All named for places. Before the media’s fake outrage, even CNN called it “Chinese Coronavirus.” Those trying to divide us must stop rooting for America to fail and give Americans real info they need to get through the crisis [Twitter]. Retrieved
- Mackey, R. (2020). Trump Shrugs Off Spike in Anti-Chinese Racism, Even in His White House. The Intercept. Retrieved from https://theintercept.com/2020/03/17/trump-blames-china-virus-white-house-aide-makes-racist-joke-asian-reporter/
- Organization, W. H. (2020). Live from WHO Headquarters – COVID-19 daily press briefing 18MAR2020.
- Rogers, K., Jakes, L., & Swanson, A. (2020). Trump Defends Using ‘Chinese Virus’ Label, Ignoring Growing Criticism. The New York Times.
- Mystal, E. (2020). The Media Is Helping Spread Trump’s Coronavirus Racism. Retrieved from https://www.thenation.com/article/society/coronavirus-trump-racism/.
- Yan, H., Chen, N., & Naresh, D. (2020). What’s spreading faster than coronavirus in the US? Racist assaults and ignorant attacks against Asians. CNN.
- Oung, Katherine. (2020). Coronavirus Racism Infected My High School. The New York Times.
- Carman, T., & Heil, E. (2020). Amid coronavirus fears, Chinese restaurants report a drop in business. The Washington Post.