When the World Health Organization announced the global epidemic of the coronavirus, a ripple of chaos moved across the globe. With over 1,775 deaths and 71,902 confirmed cases, the initial cause for concern reached an immense spike in collective anxieties. As medical teams and scientists released more information, the U.S. quickly began to take precautions. When the Chinese New Year approached, SF and LAX airports implemented extensive screenings for anyone traveling into or out of Wuhan. As the virus spread, people started to take more daily public precautions. For example, the administration for my ESL school instructed teachers to encourage the use of protective masks in the classroom and Clorox wipe every desk before class.
Taking preventative health measures is always a good move; however, in the case of the coronavirus, the hype surrounding the virus and its origins began to bring old tensions to the surface. In recent document published by the LA County Department of Public Health for California school districts, the guide reports:
“Please note that there have been reports of students and others being stigmatized. We urge schools to ensure students’ and staffs’ privacy to help prevent discrimination.“
I raise this point to poke at the justice issue that lies behind the coronavirus: Is disease connected to race?
As cases grew around my metropolitan area, the press started to focus on predominantly Asian communities, instilling a windswept fear of anyone displaying even the slightest Asian qualities. As CNN reports, “many people of Asian descent living abroad say they have been treated like walking pathogens.” A newspaper in France flashed the headline “Yellow Alert” and #ChineseDontComeToJapan was recently trending on Twitter. CNN’s Jeff Yang comment on all of the social impacts of the virus really resonates with me in times of racial and social distress:
“This coronavirus is new. But the diseases of xenophobia and racism are not. And as history has shown, outbreaks of the latter are potentially harder to contain and far more lethal.”
As Chinese medical professionals work to get the virus under control, and the American media simultaneously escalates the issue, I can’t help but notice the social and racial impacts of a disease. What do we do when a race is associated with disease?
In the times when it’s difficult to see how calling out racism is a loving act towards solidarity, I remember that we cannot stop oppressive systems and systemic fear without naming the things that happen around us. By observing the West’s reaction to a Chinese-borne disease, we can more clearly see the deep roots of racism embedded in the makeup of the American melting pot.
Misunderstanding leads to confusion, and confusion leads to fear. This cycle is an inevitable variable in all types of racism across the world. However, I urge you to notice the subtle shifts that occur between stigmatizing disease and stigmatizing race. How are these two things connected? If you’re asking yourself: “What can I do to halt widespread fear and xenophobia?,” I would suggest beginning by paying attention, and you’ve already accomplished the first step.