Xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans increases as misinformation about coronavirus spreads
As news of the coronavirus spreads throughout the country, increased xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans follow suit. Misinformation on how the virus spread has led to racist attacks against anyone who looks East Asian in the U.S., experts said. Asian Americans are not only facing physical and verbal attacks but are being financially affected by xenophobic rhetoric and fear involving the transmission of the virus. Multiple assault cases in public places have been shared alongside discrimination in restaurants and shopping stores, where Asian Americans have been asked not to enter or touch items, in addition to confirming whether or not they are Chinese.
Fear of Asian Americans has been spreading faster than the virus itself, which has killed over 2,000 people worldwide, CNN reported. The coronavirus has not only killed but affected fewer people than the flu; according to the World Health Organization, an estimate of 2,900 to 650,000 die from the flu each year globally. Yet, while more than 12,000 Americans have died from the flu this season, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said, coronavirus has generated more fear in the country. “We have this tendency to confuse people who are sick with entire groups of people, and that’s what makes it discriminatory,” Gilbert Gee, a professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health told the Los Angeles Times. “When you single out entire groups of people, that becomes prejudice,” he said.
Asian Americans taking public transportation have faced both physical and verbal violence as the result of misinformation about the coronavirus. In New York, a man assaulted a woman wearing a face mask; in another incident, a man was heard saying “every disease ever came from China,” on a Los Angeles subway, CNN reported. "With news of the coronavirus, we've seen an uptick in fear of people who look like this," Rosalind Chou, a sociology professor at Georgia State University said. "Real people are affected." Asian restaurants are also losing business and suffering financially as rumors about “cleanliness” are spread.
Many believe discrimination against Asian Americans has been latent but rumors about the virus have brought it to surface. After reading racist comments on the news, Katherine Lu told the L.A. Times that had she lived in a metropolitan area, where it was necessary to take public transportation, she would be worried people would not want to share airspace with her due to her ethnicity. “The coronavirus is an opportunity for them [racists] to safely express their racist thoughts in a way that can be excused,” she said. The stigma around Asians and disease transmission is not a new issue. Stereotypes connecting germs with immigrants can be historically cited to the early 20th century. Many ethnic and racial groups were discriminated against in the 1920s for having “supposed links between germs” including “Mexican, Chinese, and African American people,” Vox reported. “Misinformation, coupled with the fear that it provokes, can bring existing xenophobia to light,” Edith Bracho-Sanchez, assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center told Vox. “As human beings, we are afraid of the things we don’t know, but our response should be to educate ourselves, not to further spread and give oxygen to fears and misunderstandings.”
The racism and discrimination Asians are currently facing can be traced to what scholars call the “yellow peril,” ideology from the 19th century that claims that things from Asia are a great threat to the white world. According to Erika Lee, a professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota, this ideology influenced U.S. policies on the basis “that Chinese people as a race, no matter where they are, are disease carriers.” Chinese migrants have historically faced invasive and humiliating medical inspections that other immigrants were not subject to. During the bubonic plague and severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, Chinese people faced similar xenophobia as several were unable to go to work or considered “unclean.”
However, parallels between diseases and groups of people are not limited to immigrants. According to the L.A. Times, HIV was once called “gay-related immune deficiency”; this perpetuated homophobic stigma and “helped fuel the epidemic” alongside the fear of the LGBTQ community. “Treat people who exhibit symptoms rather than targeting people for quarantine or barring them from public places simply because of the way that they look,” Lee said. “It’s really about using common sense and not letting fear and panic drive us to revert back to more base fear of foreigners.”
The CDC has advised people not to panic about the coronavirus and against stereotyping people. “Do not assume that if someone is of Asian descent, they have coronavirus,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said.