As coronavirus fears break out, xenophobic acts rise

April 26, 2020 — by Nicole Lu

People participate in a rally in Chinatown, San Francisco on Feb. 29 to protest in support of Chinese Americans and local businesses.

During the early phase of the coronavirus, Debbie Lin, the mother of junior Aileen Liao, went to the hospital for a health issue unrelated to the coronavirus. As she waited, a Caucasian woman with a leg cast entered and immediately turned around and left upon seeing Lin. She overheard the woman tell her friend that she did not want to be in the same room as an Asian woman.

Such experiences for Asian Americans have become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the online reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate, Asian Americans made over 1,100 reports of discrimination in the second half of March. While the country continues to reel from staggering numbers of cases and deaths (close to 1 million documented cases and more than 50,000 deaths), Asian Americans must guard themselves against the possibility of racist attacks and microaggressions in public places.

On March 14, a hate crime garnered national attention after teenager Jose L. Gomez stabbed three Burmese family members in Midland, Texas. According to ABC News, the suspect said he stabbed the family because he thought the family was Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus.

Perhaps because Asian Americans make up the largest populations in Santa Clara and Alameda County (38.3 and 31.8 percent, respectively) the Bay Area has witnessed few extreme acts of hate during the time of coronavirus. In general, the prejudice they see on display is more subtle — eyes filled with hatred and fear, comments muttered under their breath, feelings of paranoia and exclusion.

Liao, whose family is Taiwanese-Chinese American, noted how a variety of ethnicities have been lumped under one generalization in part of the U.S..

“I know people have experienced much worse nowadays with Asian parents being shunned out of predominantly white supermarkets in our area,” Liao said. “This racism was growing long before coronavirus came to the U.S. In many instances, all Asians are generalized as Chinese. The virus was a last trigger for people as irrationality rose with fear.”

Some people’s fears stem from transmission concerns, but others take it to the point where they attack Asian Americans for unfounded reasons. Such instances include a stranger calling a Filipino nurse a racial slur and people telling Asians neighbors to “go back to China” in San Francisco.

Then there is the president and his use of incendiary language about China as a political weapon.

President Trump tweeted on March 16 that the U.S. will support “industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus.”

Within minutes, he faced backlash for his racially charged renaming of the coronavirus, but Trump defended his views, stating that it wasn’t racist because of the virus’s origin in China. (A White House staffer reportedly called the virus the Kung Flu, a report officials denied and downplayed.)

 

Seeing into the future and paying the price

Early in the crisis, few were as clear seeing as sophomore Joshua Fang. In late January, he began campaigning for awareness about coronavirus on social media. Though he said he has not experienced severe coronavirus-induced racism or microaggressions, his early warnings — and wearing of a face mask at that point — drew skepticism from several classmates.

“I have experienced people looking at me strangely or asking me why I was wearing a mask,” Fang said. “Sometimes, I felt slight hints of mocking in their words, like they think that I was stupid or overreacting. Other times, people would also intentionally fake cough next to me and look for a reaction.”

Fang said he did not think much of those acts, saying,  “Time would tell who is right.” But the crisis has gotten so bad that Fang’s family, who immigrated six years ago from Beijing, is considering temporarily moving back to China. They think they might be safer there because China has the virus more under control and they would be more protected from potential riots or aggression.

Many attribute racist acts and microaggressions to a scapegoat mentality. These feelings stem from a need to blame others when causes of a crisis are unknown. In a magazine article from Psychology Today, medical sociologist and journalist Robert Bartholomew explained that “foreigners and outsiders” in the U.S. have long been blamed for infections.

The Black Death came with widespread anti-Semitism. When the flu pandemic of 1918 broke out, the U.S. and Europe dubbed it the Spanish Flu because Spain, a neutral country in World War I, could report on the pandemic without censorship. The HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1990s saw Haitians discriminated against as carriers of the disease, and when the West African Ebola virus epidemic occurred in 2014, the news consistently reported attacks on those of African descent.

This all-too-common thinking of “us vs. them” has applied to international crises in general. The internment of Japanese Americans during WWII and hate crimes against Arab Americans and Muslims following 9/11 are only several examples of the dark side of conflicts.

In 2015, to combat such stigmatization, the World Health Organization (WHO) passed a set of guidelines intended to discourage references to a group when naming diseases, such as the case of Lyme disease, which refers to residents of Lyme, Connecticut. Not naming a disease after its place of origin is one of many recommended guidelines.

But Trump’s continued usage of the “Chinese Virus” has flies in the face of such advice, and many critics say he is doing it deliberately to pull attention from his administration’s slow and bungled handling of the pandemic.

Fang thinks the president’s words will have a lasting effect.

“[The media and the president] have taught people for two months that the virus is China’s fault, so I don’t think anything can erase that from people’s minds now,” he said. “Some will instinctively look for someone to blame in this troubled time, and in this case, it’s China and the Asian people.”

Coronavirus fears have also led to discriminatory acts against Asian family businesses in places including San Diego and San Francisco. An Asian American business was vandalized with xenophobic graffiti in New Mexico and restaurants such as New York City’s Jing Fong lost $1.5 million as people became hesitant to interact with Asian franchises before the government issued the closing of nonessential businesses.

For freshman Emerald Suzuki, whose parents run the restaurant Hachi Ju Hachi in downtown Saratoga, the business has not seen outward acts of racism. Still, Suzuki’s father, Jin Suzuki, said he has been the target of discriminatory remarks while shopping.

On one occasion, while he shopped at Sprouts with a mask on, multiple people told Jin to go home because he “had the virus.”

“Fortunately we don’t experience any racism through the business; we only feel racism in public,” said Emerald’s mother Juno Suzuki. “Customers come to our restaurant because they like us, so there’s no racism at the restaurant.”

Similarly, freshman Panisa Kachinthorn’s parents, who run Bai Tong Thai Bistro, have not experienced discrimination within the restaurant, but Kachinthorn’s mother, Chulalak Jittaveesab said that she knows of some restaurants that have discriminated against Asians during the crisis.

“It’s horrible because some places aren’t accepting or offering service for Asian people,” Jittaveesab said. “We’re all human, and we’re the same as everyone else.”

Despite the challenges of scapegoating that is egged on at the highest levels, Liao said she is confident that the international community can prevail against acts of racism and microaggression.

“I understand that people are scared,” Liao said. “So am I, and so are all the Asians and non-Asians in the U.S,” she said. “However, you can use that fear to protect yourselves and your community without harming innocent people. When xenophobic events occur, it’s important for us and other Asian Americans to support each other.”