As COVID-19 Spreads, So Does Xenophobia

Members of the Asian American commission stand together during a protest in Boston. Photo from Getty Images.

As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month draws to a close, many Asian Americans in the United States are far from being honored or celebrated. In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic originated in Wuhan, China, and spread to America, Americans of East Asian descent have faced increasing instances of hate crimes and hate speech. 

In March, the FBI Houston office compiled an intelligence report that read, “The FBI assesses hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of the coronavirus disease. The FBI makes this assessment based on the assumption that a portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.” 

American leaders, including President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and media commentators have taken to calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus,” though the World Health Organization has encouraged officials to refrain from assigning a geographic name to the virus. President Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign also released an ad targeting Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for being lenient on the Chinese government. The ad says, “China is killing our jobs, and now killing our people.”

This rhetoric falsely insinuates to the public that all Asians are to blame for the coronavirus. As the FBI anticipated, Asian Americans across the country have experienced discrimination.

Asian American students at GDS spoke about their experiences during the pandemic. Senior Ethan Sze said, “I read the news, and there’s all these instances of anti-Asian racism. It’s gotten a lot worse now, and it doesn’t help that our president is blaming us by calling it the Chinese Virus.” 

Sophomore Miles Huh, one of the heads of the GDS Asian American Affinity Group (AAA), reflected on a racist encounter he had while at a Model U.N. conference in February. “A homeless lady started harassing me for being Asian,” he recalled. “She wasn’t being malicious but she was being aggressive, saying ‘Don’t you have corona?’”

The Asian-American news website Next Shark has compiled reported incidents of hate crimes against Asian Americans due to the coronavirus. As of May 25, there have been 1,710 reports submitted. 47 percent of these incidents occurred at a public venue, nine percent were committed against AAPI seniors and 69 percent of reports were from women. 

In Texas, a two-year-old and a six-year-old were stabbed because the aggressor thought the family was Chinese and spreading the virus. In Santa Clara County, California, a man threatened a Vietnamese couple in a grocery store with finger guns. In the neighboring Alameda County, a white woman was arrested for posting xenophobic signs around her neighborhood with statements like “No Asians Allowed.”

Racist language has also spread across social media sites, with creators referring to the “Chinese Virus” or joking about Asians eating bats. 

These hate crimes have brought to the surface underlying tension and racist beliefs. Asian Americans are often believed to be a “well-off” minority group. This notion is a product of the “model minority myth,” a construct designed to both invalidate Asian American struggles and pit Asian Americans against other minority groups. 

Asian Americans make up a large portion of the U.S. health care force fighting the virus. According to a 2018 study by the American Association of Medical Colleges, 17.1 percent of physicians in the U.S. are of Asian descent. Asians make up ten percent of nurse practitioners. Anti-Asian sentiment has not excluded Asian-American health care workers who are risking their own health to save lives. Though they are on the front lines, some patients refuse to be treated by them. A sick patient in Los Angeles County intentionally coughed onto an Asian health care worker, saying, “You know where the coronavirus is from? It’s from you people.”

From celebrities to everyday citizens, Asian Americans have responded in different ways. On March 17, basketball player Jeremy Lin called out President Trump on Twitter, tweeting, “I wish you would powerfully support the vulnerable people that will suffer due to our mismanagement of this virus, including those that will be affected by the racism you’re empowering.”

Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang wrote a controversial op-ed in which he encouraged Asian Americans to “show our American-ness in ways we never have before.” Many Asian Americans were offended. Esther Choo, an emergency physician in Portland, Oregon, was frustrated by Yang’s proposal that Asian Americans have to prove how good they are in order to be free of racist abuse. “No, you don’t deserve this, because you’re human,” Choo said.

There are ways for Asian Americans to stay strong despite the increased racism and xenophobia. “I have engaged in Asian-American community events over Zoom with different organizations.” said former AAA head Tayae Rogers. “Something that the overall increased racism because of this pandemic has caused is a re-realization of historic racism. I think that serves as a valuable wake-up call, and I think it’s important to understand the historical Asian American experience. This is a call to action.”

Anoushka Chander ’21