The one thing spreading faster than the coronavirus is xenophobia.
As coronavirus continues to dominate our screens, thoughts, and increasingly our world, it’s important to recognize how this moment is experienced differently by some communities.
Historically, viral outbreaks increase xenophobia as scapegoating is common and blame is often hastily assigned to an entire race, ethnicity or nationality. This has occurred repeatedly throughout history, from the 1832 cholera outbreak blamed on the Irish Catholics, to the 2014 Ebola outbreak blamed on Africans. We also know that developing a shorthand name for viruses based on the geographic location they originated from is common, like the Spanish Flu, Singapore Virus, the Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus (MERS) and more. However, in 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO) released guidelines “discouraging the use of geographic locations when naming illnesses because it could stigmatize the people living there”. And Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general recently stated that, “Stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than the virus itself.”
Yet, we find ourselves in a time where the coronavirus is being repeatedly referred to as the “Chinese Virus” or “Wuhan Virus” by some media outlets and US officials. Including President Trump who just this week tweeted, “The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!” Then, on Wednesday during a press conference he defended his continued use of the term “Chinese Virus” at length, going as far to insist that he is not, in fact, being racist at all.
But the impact of the use of the term, “Chinese Virus” and the xenophobic sentiment around this moment is being felt globally by Chinese and other East Asian communities. For them, this climate of fear and uncertainty is not just about contracting the virus — it’s about not knowing how people will treat them when they cough in the supermarket, leave the house wearing a facemask, or maybe just walk down the street. And just like that, the “quiet minority” or “model minority” has been abandoned with the very loud message that they are not only “other”, but to blame.
The California Health Report has stated that, in the US, East Asians and East Asian Americans are experiencing an increase in xenophobic and hate driven acts, “including micro-agression, workplace discrimination, business avoidance, harrassmant, threats and physical assault”. Stories of these incidents are heartbreaking, as they range from Tanny Jiraprapasuke, a Thai woman in Los Angeles who was verbally attacked on public transit, to Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student who was violently attacked on Oxford Street in London, by four men who punched and kicked him on the ground while saying, “we don’t want your coronavirus here”. This climate is leading to an increase in bullying and hate driven acts in schools as well, where Asian and Asian American students face such comments as “Everyone knows Chinese people are disgusting, they’ll eat any type of animal, they’re dirty”.
These social stigmas are also leading to financial hardships throughout East Asian communities in the US, like in Sunset Park Brooklyn, where the streets are eerily empty and one restaurant says it’s lost up to 90 percent of its business. And, in San Gabriel Valley, in the Greater Los Angeles Area, some reports are saying that many Chinese owned restaurants have lost from 30 to 70 percent of their businesses (before the Mayor ordered shutdown of all restaurants). There are very real concerns that neighborhoods like these may never fully recover.
These communities have been speaking up. In France, East Asian communities started using the hashtag, #Jenesuispasunvirus (“I am not a virus”) on Twitter to call out abuse, creating a sense of solidarity and encouraging East Asians from around the world to share their experiences with xenophobia and racism. All over social media we are now seeing testimonials from East Asians openly sharing their gut wrenching stories and there are many media outlets covering this topic appropriately and shedding the necessary light on harmful impacts of this cultural virus, that is xenophobia.
It is normal for us as a society and as individuals to process crises through the lens of race, since that is a common organizing principle for problems within politics, economy and culture. And during times of crisis, our own life experiences and existing frameworks and assumptions of race will be a part of how we process the situation. Therefore, xenophobia did not come into this current moment from nowhere. There was existing racist sentiment toward people of East Asian descent that have simply been picked up off the ground and used by people to digest what is happening around them. That’s why viral outbreaks cause an uptick in xenophobia, because racism is already present.
It is in moments of crisis that we see who we truly are; as a nation, a society, and as individuals. So, although these are uncertain times for all as we continue to worry about contracting the virus ourselves, about our jobs, our families, and of course those who have already contracted the virus, it’s also important to consider the lives of those who bear the misassigned blame for this pandemic.