The current coronavirus pandemic is obviously affecting our health—and the economy. Businesses are closing down, people are confined to their homes, and everyone is hoarding toilet paper and masks (which isn’t a good idea, by the way).
The pandemic is also affecting Asian-Americans more than ever. With the recent news that the Chinese government failed to properly recognize initial concerns over the virus, people have been pointing fingers at the country. With this blame come great consequences, as Chinese people (and really those of all Asian descents) are falling victim to racially-based violence, discrimination, and hatred.
But the virus started in China. What’s so racist about calling it “the Chinese virus”?
It reinforces stereotypes.
Labeling a biological viral disease with an ethnicity stigmatizes the people of that heritage. As Rep. Grace Meng mentioned, it “reinforces the disparaging and negative stereotypes of Asian Americans.” It’s even led to the creation of another derogatory nickname, “kung flu” (which isn’t funny, Chrissie). Asians, especially those of Chinese descent, have been viewed as “perpetual foreigners,” and suffered through a history of being the scapegoat when it comes to pandemics and health crises, with people blaming their eating habits and using this to justify their xenophobic behavior. As I’ve scrolled through Instagram comments, I’ve seen a lot of people complaining “maybe they shouldn’t eat dogs” and “this wouldn’t have started if they stopped eating anything that moves.”
By referring to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” you’re not seeing it as it is—an airborne disease—and are instead generalizing it to a marginalized group, inciting a fear toward Asian-Americans.
Even the WHO says it’s dangerous.
The World Health Organization, or WHO, came up with the name COVID-19 and is encouraging people to call it by the official name instead of associating it with its location of origin.
“These words can perpetuate negative stereotypes or assumptions, strengthen false associations between COVID-19 and other factors, create widespread fear, or dehumanize those who have the disease,” the organization tweeted earlier this month.
They have also published a social stigma guide which provides detailed information on how to avoid social stigma and why.
As a result of this pandemic, Chinese people have once again become the scapegoat. People’s anger, frustration, and anxiety have been explicitly aimed at Asian-Americans and the situation has become dire, with a gun shop in California seeing a rise of sales and customers—especially by Asian-Americans.
I’ve seen a lot of videos posted on social media of people ridiculing and dehumanizing Asian people—from calling them “coronavirus” to physically assaulting them. A woman in New York was punched in the face and called “Asian bitch” simply because she wasn’t wearing a mask, police said.
A homeless elderly man from San Francisco was robbed of the cans he collects as his source of income. In the viral video, you can see the man is clearly upset as people (including the cameraman) taunt him, chase him, shout racial slurs, and steal his cartful of cans.
Another viral video shows an Asian man in a Target store in Daly City being confronted by a white person after he allegedly coughed. A man refused to stand next to an Asian man in a New York subway and sprayed Febreze at him. There has been a rise of racism against Asian Uber and Lyft drivers. The list is endless, and it will continue to keep growing unless we do something about it.
How can I help?
Not only do we all have to work collectively in slowing the spread of coronavirus by staying home, but we also have to work to stop the spread of racism. We need to educate one another about the dangers of referring to the disease as a “Chinese virus.” As the social stigma guide mentions, it leads to dangerous, inaccurate assumptions and associations.
Report any form of racism, whether it’s to the police or online. The New York Attorney General has launched a hotline for biased hate crimes for those who live in New York. NextShark is an Asian-American and Asian media news company which has an incident report which you can read about here.
Illustration by Dadu Shin for The New Yorker