Coronavirus-related xenophobia

How misinformation and anxiety can escalate into harassment

Coronavirus outbreak map,
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons

Coronavirus outbreak map, Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons

The coronavirus emerged in December from a live-food market in Wuhan, China. According to National Geographic, the number of confirmed cases has risen to more than 60,000 with a continuously rising death toll of 1,500. The coronavirus has raised fears among people from New York City, Los Angeles, and to various cities across the world. Along with these fears, however, come xenophobic incidents targeted towards Asians. Xenophobia is defined as, “dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries.” Violent and non-violent hate crimes have been reported all over the world due to anxiety and misinformation related to the virus.

The idea of xenophobia being intertwined with public health is not new. Merlin Chowkwanyun, historian and professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, tells Vox that, “historically, in both popular and scientific discourse, contagious disease has often been linked, in a blanket way, to population groups thought to be ‘outsiders.’” For example, associations between germs and immigrants led to immigration restrictions in the 1920s in New York City. Authorities justified racial segregation by drawing links between germs and Mexican, Chinese, and African American people. One was immediately deemed as high risk because of their nationality.

According to NBC News, Los Angeles resident Tanny Jiraprapasuke was verbally harrassed when a man blatantly directed a loud and angry rant about the coronavirus towards her. As seen in the video that Jiraprapasuke recorded, the man is making a scene while yelling profanities and racial claims about Chinese Americans. As the only Asian American on the train, she says that she felt very alone. Jiraprapasuke also says, “I’m not even Chinese. He’s really attacking me because I look a certain way.” As a member of the Thai American community, she felt alone and targeted based on her appearance.  

An Asian-American student at Battlefield recently came down with the flu. Although this student no longer has the flu, an adult that this student encountered asked, “Do you have the coronavirus? That joke works two ways because you got sick and you’re Asian.” Like Jiraprapasuke, this student is not even Chinese. In a joking manner or not, this made the student feel targeted based on their race and like an outsider. 

Many are quick to assume that because one is part of the Asian community or from China that they are more likely to have the coronavirus. This leads to the blame game of blaming the “other,” or the outsider. Robert Fullilove, professor of sociomedical sciences at the Columbia University, tells Business Insider that the xenophobic fear surrounding coronarvirus parallels the reaction toward HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, when there were no clear answers as to what caused it. At the time, people blamed those who belonged to communities of Haitians, intravenous drug users, and gay men. This use of others as scapegoats stems from the idea of social silos. Fullilove continues that “we tend to exist in social silos where we’re surrounded by people who look like us, think like us, and act like us, and we are innately suspicious of folk that we don’t have contact with and we don’t understand.”

Despite only four confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the UK, Britain’s Chinese community of 390,000 people has noticed an openly racist response to this global health crisis. The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, reports that two students who have an “Asian appearance” were pelted with eggs on the street and verbally harassed. Along with this, Jingyi Qian, a student at the University of York, says that she felt uncomfortable wearing her mask in public “because people stare.” Hearing about another incident of another student getting verbally and physically harassed for wearing a mask made Qian fearful to wear it. “I don’t want to get attacked, I just want to protect myself.” It is common in Asian countries to wear a face mask to protect against air pollution and sickness. In the UK, however, some Chinese immigrants like Qian say that wearing a mask makes them a target for hate. To non-Asians, the mask serves as a symbol of disease and illness. 

Fears of the coronavirus have triggered racism towards the Asian community. Misinformation about the virus continues to spread, creating an unnecessary stigma of not only this community, but also the disease itself.