COVID-19 Exposes Another Type of Virus – Racism

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented era in our nation’s history. Millions of Americans are sequestered in their homes while schools, offices, and businesses remain closed to combat the spread of the highly contagious respiratory virus that has infiltrated nearly every country on earth and killed thousands. Grocery stores are packed full of frightened people fighting for food and supplies to sustain them through the extended time indoors, and the economy is beginning to show signs of strain as many forms of commerce have screeched to a halt. And another ugly side effect of this health emergency seems to be emerging with startling force – racism and xenophobia towards Asian immigrants and AsianAmericans. [See What’s Spreading Faster than Coronavirus in the U.S.? Racist Assaults and Ignorant Attacks Against Asians by Holly Yan, Natasha Chen and Dushyant Naresh, CNN, 21.Feb.2020.]

While the first reported cases of COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China late last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading national public health institute in the United States, has repeatedly stated that race is not a factor in how the virus is transmitted and that “people of Asian descent, including ChineseAmericans, are not more likely to get COIVD-19 than any other American.” Despite this reality, Asian immigrant and AsianAmerican communities around the country are reporting a precipitous rise in verbal and physical attacks. Last week, a widely-viewed online video showed a ThaiAmerican woman on a Los Angeles subway being yelled at by a fellow passenger, who called her “disgusting.” In New York City, an Asian woman wearing a face mask designed to stop the spread of the virus was assaulted by a man while walking down the street. Similar incidents have been reported nationwide over the past several weeks. [See Can Food Bloggers Save Chinatowns Across America From Coronavirus Panic? by Mary Emily O’Hara, AdWeek, 12.Mar.2020.]

The rise of racist vitriol against the Asian community has also resulted in staggering losses for shops, food stands, and restaurants that specialize in Chinese cuisine. As reported by Vox, established Chinese immigrant enclaves, such as the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, are being hit the hardest. Home to nearly 75,000 immigrants who gradually shifted to the area from Manhattan, Sunset Park is known for its plethora of dim sum eateries and grocery stores offering fresh fruits and vegetables native to China. But in the weeks since COVID-19 has gripped the country, the once robust customer traffic has withered. In response to the drop in demand, most of the area’s restaurants closed their doors last week, days before New York City mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all eateries citywide to shut down in a drastic effort to contain the spread of the illness. Many of Sunset Park’s restaurant owners are immigrants or first-generation Americans who started their business as part of their American dream. Now, those who live in the neighborhood are wondering if their dream was an illusion all along. Whitney Hu, who is the child of immigrants and is running for city council on a platform of representation for places like Sunset Park, summed up her frustration to Vox: “[The xenophobia is] a reminder of how quick people try to herald us as model minorities but also how quickly they will remind us where we are. You come to a place like New York City, and you assume you’re free from all the bullying because it’s multicultural, but then you realize that the solidarity isn’t there…” [See How a Chinese Immigrant Neighborhood is Struggling Amid Coronavirus-Related Xenophobia by Rachel Ramirez, VOX, 14.Mar.2020.]

It is important to remember during these strange times that COVID-19 will eventually fade as a threat, and Americans will return to their daily routines. But racism and xenophobia are their own form of infection, one that can’t be wiped out with hand washing, social distancing, or vaccines. Instead, it must be combated with empathy, education, and appreciation for the immigrants who have made this country great.


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