OPINION: Coronavirus spreads across America. So does anti-Asian sentiment.

In Iran, workers spray public transports like buses, trains, and subways with antibacterial in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or coronavirus. Photo courtesy of Mina Noei & Wikimedia Commons.

As cases of the novel coronavirus continue to grow in the United States (as of this printing, there are at least 130 confirmed cases in the United States, according to a report published by CNN), so has anti-Asian sentiment across college campuses and major cities.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, shortness of breath, and racism.

Countless incidents of public racist remarks, accounts from college students, and seemingly inoffensive small comments have brought to light underlying racism and xenophobia.

The new strain of coronavirus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, capital of the Hubei province. The origins of the virus have been traced to a popular wet market — named for the way workers clean the floors through spraying it down with water — also known for its regular selection of meat and produce, but occasionally, wild animals if you know where to look.

Coronaviruses are often transmitted from animals, such as the 2003 SARS outbreak that similarly was traced back to a Chinese wet market. With the revelation that history was repeating itself, conspiracies and rumors circulated around the world, leading to comments about how another outbreak was bound to happen given the outlandish food choices found in Chinese cuisine. 

People’s false assumptions about the way the disease might be transmitted through food is a harmful one for businesses around the country as well. Chinese family-owned restaurants across the nation are in economic peril due to a drastic dip in customers over the past two months. Chicago’s Chinatown is largely empty, with many owners saying they may have to start laying off employees soon. The reality is that it is incredibly unlikely that an individual will contract the virus by eating in Chinatown. 

These types of actions only perpetuate a long-held and harmful Western stereotype of how parts of Asia are unclean or uncivilized. There have been many instances in history of the supposed connection between immigrants and germs or dirtiness. In 1900, a Chinese man was found dead due to the bubonic plague in Chinatown in San Francisco, prompting the city to quarantine the entire area.

It prompted public discussion about deporting all Chinese immigrants. When HIV began causing panic in the 80s, the American public used similar justification against Haitian immigrants. Historically, it is clear that it is very easy for ignorance to spread, but it’s an indication of how this automatic response hurts whole communities and any notion of inclusivity and acceptance.


Updated March 2nd, this map — published by NBC News — tracks the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States. Photo courtesy of NBC News.

The outbreak of coronavirus cannot be solely blamed on Chinese eating habits or exotic food preferences. Various socioeconomic factors ranging from lack of communication from the state government and failure to regulate animal trade have played a role in what has become a global health concern. Cover-ups by state media at the start of the outbreak, failure by the government to effectively work with the Chinese Red Cross, and other underlying issues have made a horrendous situation into the problem it is currently.

The coronavirus hasn’t created racism or xenophobia but has only highlighted the many stereotypes and microaggressions that East Asians have endured for years.

It’s just more apparent than ever because of COVID-19.

The World Economic Forum found that 66% of people polled support a travel ban for people visiting America from other countries in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. To what extent do you support travel bans that would limit the number of people who intend to visit America? 

Poll based on a cross-section of East students

Many Asians have had an experience or two with questions about eating dogs. And with this disease, it is just another example of people grouping all East Asians into a single group, disregarding cultural differences but instead generalizing by appearance. The sad reality is that these stereotypes have always been present — the new coronavirus is bringing to light a harsher side of the normalized, subtle discrimination.

Increased hostility and discriminatory treatment has surfaced all across the United States, and constant images of Chinese in face masks does nothing but fuel misinformation and give the public a visible target.

Just yesterday, Manhattan confirmed a new coronavirus case in a young woman who had recently traveled to Iran. The picture that the New York Post used as the header for the piece was of Asian man wearing a facemask in Queens, seemingly to play on established fears and stereotypes surrounding the coronavirus. 

The coronavirus hasn’t created racism or xenophobia but has only highlighted the many stereotypes and microaggressions that East Asians have endured for years.

It’s just more apparent than ever because of COVID-19.

In times of fear and misinformation, discrimination is not uncommon. But it should not be normalized, as UC Berkeley has insinuated in a now-deleted Instagram post which cites xenophobia along with anxiety and helplessness as “common” reactions. The natural response to blame and resort to discrimination is something that is detrimental to society.

Disease and pandemics don’t discriminate between races or cultures.

People do.

If concerned with catching a respiratory disease, anyone coughing is a potential threat, not just an Asian person on the street. The only way to combat this growing disease is with science and cooperation among world leaders.

This outbreak is projected to become worse, so along with informing citizens about proper disease prevention, we should be addressing harmful stereotypes and racism as well. It is important now more than ever to avoid vilifying an entire ethnic group and focus on actual health concerns — we cannot fall victim to ignorance in such a crucial time.

Vivian La is the Opinion Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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