In November 2019, the first case of coronavirus, or COVID-19, was diagnosed in Wuhan, China. As the virus spread, Asian governments were accused of facilitating the rise of coronavirus through unsanitary wet markets and the concealment of news. As these ideas circulated, Asians around the world became victims of both verbal and physical harassment.
According to co-head of the Asian-American Student Association Jasmine Shah ’21, “prejudice under the guise of preserving public health” has occurred throughout various pandemics. Starting in 1348, the Black Death spread through Europe, annihilating the continent’s population. Unable to explain the plague, people turned to antisemitism, claiming Jewish people caused the disease by poisoning wells. Although there was no evidence of this, Jews, who were generally less affected than Christians, were targeted and massacres killed thousands of Jews and devastated their communities.
More recently, discrimination transpired during the Ebola epidemic in 2014. The high mortality rates stirred fear among people of the United States, causing many workplaces and schools to mistreat African Americans. Some people labeled Ebola as “African,” further encouraging the blame mentality. Colleges, including Navarro College in Texas, reflected this mentality when it rejected international students from Africa.
Now, similar discrimination is occurring with Coronavirus. After the first case of Coronavirus was confirmed in the United States, reports from Asian-Americans of racially motivated harassment increased. Director of Equity and Community Becky Harper has heard of many violent attacks towards Asians including a “2-year old and family” who were “stabbed at their local supermarket” which the “federal authorities have deemed a hate crime.” The reported attack happened on March 14 in Texas after the assailant thought the family was Chinese and was infecting others.
Similar assaults are occurring globally. On February 24, 23-year-old college student Jonathon Mok was told: “I don’t want your Coronavirus in my country” while being assaulted on the streets of London, according to BBC News. Later that same day, the New York Post reported that a 68-year-old man was robbed and beaten with a broomstick in San Francisco.
Head of Students Against Xenophobia (SAX) Sapphira Ching ’20 describes discrimination in a financial form; “Chinatowns around the world and in the USA have been shunned” and “many Asian shops are closing down and going out of business” due to a reduction in customers. Shah believes Asian businesses are suffering because “People are associating Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, with COVID-19, and thus are becoming hesitant to support their businesses.”
Harper explains that discrimination during pandemics occurs because of “misconceptions of how diseases evolve, how they are transferred, and how they spread.” Co-chair of Diversity Board Rayane Taroua ’20 agrees, saying discrimination “stems from a lack of education.” Ching believes that discrimination occurs due to “social myopia.” She clarifies, “when in fear, people begin pointing fingers at each other instead of working together to find solutions.”
Nuances, such as the naming of viruses, can contribute to pandemic discrimination. Co-head of Students United for Racial Equity (SURE) Julia Kosinski ’21 believes that “by associating the name of a disease with a place or people, xenophobia and prejudice are more likely to arise—that is why WHO [the World Health Organization] suggested that the virus be named more generically to avoid stigma.” Shah notes such an example from history: “The 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak was referred to as such because Spain was the only country that was actually reporting on the outbreak, even though the first cases were in the United States. This led to prejudice against those of Spanish descent.” Despite the WHO’s guidelines to prevent this from happening again, Shah says “many people, the President [of the United States] included, have referred to [COVID-19] as the ‘Chinese virus.’ This constant repetition perpetuates the idea that the Chinese are responsible for this disease.”
When asked why other leading countries have not received as much criticism as China, Harper said countries like the United States and Italy “are historically countries of power” that have “cultural, economic and global clout.” Throughout history, these countries have been primarily white-dominated and have upheld “colonization, slavery, and systems of oppression.” Therefore, “those that do not identify as White are treated differently.”
Regardless of who the discrimination is directed towards, people and communities are still affected by it. According to Harper, racial slurs and assaults lead to “trauma.” She elaborates, “Individuals who identify or simply ‘look’ Asian are living in a state of fear and trauma unsure if and when they might be at the receiving end of racial epithets, hate speech, or even violence.” Taroua believes it brings “added stress” from both worrying about the virus and the effects of discrimination.
To combat racism towards Asians, members of the Hopkins community offer some insight on how to improve the situation. Co-head of SURE Jasmine Simmons ’21 says: “The global spread of this virus is not due to the actions of only one country, and containing the virus will depend on all of us working together." Harper urges people to“stay informed” and “listen to other people’s stories” as a way to combat xenophobia. “Negative and harmful ideas spread, no different than a virus, and unless we are actively fighting against it, those ideas stay, survive, get fed, and thrive.”