Coronavirus and xenophobia: ‘When people look at us, they just don’t see us as American’ 


March 31, 2020

Editor’s note: CHN Intern Olivia Maurer is a junior at Cornell University, where she is majoring in Human Biology, Health, and Society, with a minor in Global Health. Voices for Human Needs is examining the effects of coronavirus on low-income and other vulnerable populations. This post is one in a continuing series. 

The global panic surrounding the novel coronavirus has incited widespread anxiety, helplessness, and even panic-buying hundreds of rolls of toilet paper. However, another pandemic response has reared its ugly head: prejudice. COVID-19 panic has exposed deep-seated xenophobia within Western culture and it has led to a disgusting display of hostility toward Asian Americans. This xenophobia has manifested itself in a very racist coronavirus narrative, one that has been perpetuated by some Americans as well as the Trump Administration 

Asian American community leaders in Massachusetts called out racism, fear-mongering, and misinformation aimed at Asian communities at a rally on March 12, 2020. Photo Credit: Steven Senne/AP

As recently as Feb. 22nd, President Trump tweeted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA,” and “Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” Later, on March 9, his statements continued to downplay the severity of the outbreak, saying “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. … At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” Both South Korea and the United States discovered their first cases on the same day. However, during the 17-day period wherein Trump took to Twitter to calm the concerns of the masses, South Korea tested 10,000 people per day in drive-thrus, for free. 

During the same 17-day period, medical professionals urged Trump to ramp up production of protective equipment such as N95 masks and hospital ventilators. Later still, on March 19, Trump said “Nobody in their wildest dreams would have thought we would need tens of thousands of ventilators,” despite weeks of doctors and governors begging the White House to release federal funds to aid in preparation efforts.  

It appears that Trump’s initial plan was to maintain control of the outbreak’s narrative by downplaying its severity, but such a plan isn’t acceptable anymore. As of Tuesday, March 31, 41,000 people have died across the globe, more than 3,600 of whom are Americans. 

In an effort to disguise his disastrous handling of the COVID-19 crisis, Trump initially turned to his trusty Plan B: racism. From a photograph released by The Washington Post, it became clear that Trump and his team made a choice as clear as thick, black Sharpie. His remarks for his Thursday press conference were (1). printed for him in huge font and (2). marked in only one place – where “Corona” in “Corona virus” had been crossed out and replaced with “Chinese.”  This represented a deliberate choice to shift the COVID-19 narrative and to use China as a scapegoat for any anger caused by the Trump Administration’s poor coronavirus response. On March 16, Trump first used the term “Chinese Virus” on Twitter, and thus began his embrace of an ugly construction Mike Pompeo and others had earlier tried to mainstream, despite urging from the World Health Organization which, in February, requested that the pandemic solely be referred to as coronavirus or COVID-19.  

Trump’s early attempts to disseminate anti-Chinese rhetoric faced major pushback from the public as well as media outlets and reporters. On March 18, at the White House’s pandemic task force press briefing, Trump was asked by a reporter about the acceptability of the terms “Kung Flu and “Chinese Virus.” He was asked, Do you think using the term “Chinese Virus” puts Asian Americans at risk? That people might target them? His reply: “Not at all, I think they would probably agree with it 100%. It comes from China.” Several other public figures including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and  Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) have condemned Trump’s anti-Chinese narrative. A National Public Radio station even stopped airing Trump’s Coronavirus briefings because of false information. Clearlyhis attempts to blame the Chinese haven’t worked well, but they still have emboldened some people to use threatening rhetoric, leading to an increase in discriminatory behavior.  

Some Republican lawmakers have also supported Trump’s attempted shift in messaging. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) defended the use of “Chinese virus,” by stating “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that. These viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people, and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the swine flu, and now the coronavirus.” In addition to the blatant racism, much of the Texas senator’s comment is either wrong or ignores important context. Though the first human infections involving the novel coronavirus originated in China, as did the strain of coronavirus that caused the 2003 SARS epidemic, neither the 2012 MERS outbreak, nor the 2009 swine flu epidemics started there. And the senator doesn’t need to travel outside of his home state to eat snake meat. In Texas, several towns hold annual festivals where residents fry up filets of snake as a novelty meal. Disparaging an entire ethnic group and culture in one ignorant, false comment is unacceptable. It is bigotry in its clearest form.  

Rather than lose support because of his failure to contain COVID-19, Trump has deliberately tried to pushed any and all blame onto China and, in doing so, has encouraged an unsafe and unstable environment for thousands of Asian Americans.  Asian-owned businesses are suffering and Asian Americans are facing heightened street harassment and even physical assault. Allison Park from Brooklyn told National Public Radio that, on a visit to Washington, D.C., she noticed a man making faces at her on the Metro train. She attempted to distance herself, but he was relentless. After a while, she recounted, he confronted her outright, saying: “”Get out of here. Go back to China. I don’t want none of your swine flu here.” Just a week later, on a Muni train in San Francisco, another man yelled the same thing to her — “Go back to China” — and even threatened to shoot her. Another interviewee said that “[the harassment] just reminds me that when people look at us, they don’t see us as American.” 

As COVID-19 disrupts American life, Asian Americans are facing a double threat. Not only must they concern themselves with the spread of the virus, they are also grappling with the rapid rise of racism in the form of verbal and physical attacks. In interviews conducted this month, Asian American participants across the country said that they were afraid to go grocery shopping, to travel alone on public transportation, or to let their children go outside. San Francisco State University found a 50 percent rise in the number of articles related to anti-Asian discrimination amid COVID-19 between the dates of Feb. 9 and March 7. Lead researcher Russell Jeung worked with the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON) to set up an online form that allows users to self-report firsthand accounts of anti-Asian discrimination. Nearly 500 cases had been reported as of early March, and A3PCON is working to publicize more recent numbers 

This sudden spike in hate is not unlike the kind experienced by American Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians in the U.S. following the terrorist attacks of Sept, 11, 2001. What differs is that while President George W. Bush urged tolerance, President Trump has incited more racial tension. Manju Kulkarni, executive director of A3PCON, says that addressing the bigotry is the first step to solving it. Asian Americans are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, just like everyone else. We should be concerned for their safety as they navigate the additional burden imposed by racist remarks and attacks“We should be coming together as a country and helping out our neighbors, our co-workers and our friends,” said Kulkarni. “We should not be attacking one another and making life more difficult for our fellow Americans during this extremely difficult time. This crisis gives us an opportunity to be our better selves. We should meet the challenge.” 

Sadly, Trump’s response to coronavirus has reinforced tapped nativism and xenophobia. We can, and must, do better.