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COVID-19 and the Disease of Xenophobia

Updated: May 20, 2020

Yejin Lee

COVID-19 first started in Wuhan, China. The news spread throughout the world along with the story of Chinese eating bats. Although the virus quickly spread to South Korea, the U.S. initially seemed reluctant to respond to the rapidly increasing death, arguing that because it was happening in Asia, a long distance away, it will not reach the United States. However, it started to show real-life implications in the U.S. with the sudden rise of infected people in New York and in other states. It became more and more pronounced as the news started to announce the serious spread of infection all across the nation. Schools shifted to online teaching, stores were shut down, and many people were advised to stay home under the new rule of social distancing. Consequently, many people lost their jobs, the economy began to fall into recession, and the world seemed to come to a sudden stop. Along with social and economic issues, this epidemic also exposed xenophobic and racist attitudes with several attacks against the Asian community. Since late February the association between China and the coronavirus has led to many anti-Chinese and racist incidents. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Asians are now being associated and blamed for the spread of COVID-19.

When President Donald Trump used the term “Chinese virus”, it seemed normal for people to blame the Chinese. The situation became so worse that Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. not only started to worry about the coronavirus, but also became scared about their own safety as horrible and heart-breaking news on social media about Asian hate crimes went viral. Quite naturally one of my Korean friends expressed concerns about our safety, thereby suggesting we should wear sunglasses and masks to hide our appearances. Last month, when I saw the news that a Korean girl of my age was punched on her chin in Korea town, Manhattan, for not wearing a mask and accused by a woman of color for spreading the virus, I realized how systemic racism spares no one and that people of color can join hands in such situations to blame the Asian community for spreading the virus. I also became scared, imagining what happened to the Korean girl might happen to me as well. Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for me to have an expected unpleasant experience. It was on the street near my house in Astoria in full daylight around mid-March when I encountered a frowned face of a man staring at me intently. Although he didn’t say anything, his facial expression delivered an implied message of his prejudices towards me. Not knowing what to do, I ignored him and went my way. Since then I encountered such glances a few more times. Although I am fortunate to not have encountered any physical or verbal attacks so far, I always have to worry about possible threats—verbal or non-verbal—each time I go out.

The above incident encouraged me to inquire if my fellow Asian peers too have started experiencing the same. Leah Leem from Liberal Arts and Science Program shared her experience, explaining: “I have been asked questions such as "do you eat bats?" or "ching chong" online, specifically on Omegle. Another hurtful feeling that I have experienced recently is people turning their backs on me or covering their faces thinking that all the Asian population has this virus.” Grace Cho from Liberal Arts and Science Program also expressed her concerns regarding racial violence targeting Asians. She said “Watching videos of race-based attacks against Asians caused me to be very distressed, as I started to see that these hate crimes can very easily happen to me as well. I’m starting to read less news and decrease my time on social media so that I’m not so preoccupied with these negative events.” As an effect of COVID-19 in her life as an Asian American, she added: “I am more aware of my presence in public during the few times I go out for necessary errands, as I don’t want to attract too much negative attention to myself as an Asian person. My concern for my family’s well-being in public has also increased, since I am worried for their safety as well.”

At this time of a global pandemic, the above incident and the interview showed how hate crimes and microaggressions are deeply entrenched in the United States. People are exclaiming that China should apologize for the world and compensate all the damage the COVID-19 has incurred. In this situation it is extremely easy to attack me and other Asians, not only because we are the colored minority immigrants but also, because much of these attitudes stem from politically motivated wide spreading of unsupported opinions that we Asians are the cause of this crisis. Consequently, whether we directly encounter hate crimes or not, the fear that it may happen to me, my family, or my friends haunts all Asians.

I am also aware that people across the world are now living in sorrow, anger, and pain these days. People might need a scapegoat to express their anger. However, it is important that we become mindful of others’ emotions and sentiments and collaborate to combat racism during COVID-19. Recently I attended the Bystander Intervention training hosted by Hollaback on April 21st where I learned 5 different methods, called The Five D’s, of supporting someone who’s being harassed. The workshop emphasized that harassment is not okay and we have the power to make the community safer. During these times of crisis, instead of blaming innocent people, one should focus on how to resolve this crisis and eventually return to a normal world.


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