The Coronavirus and Asian Xenophobia

How has the coronavirus impacted perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans?

Posted Feb 24, 2020

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

I was recently at my local Emergency Room for an infection in my finger when the nurse asked if I had traveled out of the country within the past 30 days. I asked him if this question was due to the coronavirus outbreak and he answered in the affirmative. He then relayed a story where a middle-aged Caucasian man checked himself in the ER to have himself evaluated for the virus even though he was not experiencing any symptoms or had traveled anywhere in Asia. When I asked the nurse what the patient's reasoning was, he replied that the patient was concerned because he had talked to an Asian person in the United States.

Was this warranted on his part? Probably not. Was it a precautionary measure? Absolutely. But what this does is exemplify the fear that some people have in interacting with any Asian person whatsoever. But the fear has escalated into violence in some instances.

In the Los Angeles area, an Asian student was beaten up by his peers amid their escalating fears. "A young person was bullied in his middle school, physically attacked and accused of having the coronavirus simply because he was Asian American," said Manjusha Kulkarni, the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council.

"He went to the hospital originally and went to the emergency room," said Robin Toma, the Executive Director of the L.A. County Human Relations Commission. "They were taking MRIs to ensure he didn't have a concussion or other harm."

The BBC recently reported flyers in Los Angeles with counterfeit seals for the World Health Organization (WHO) have been posted warning patrons to avoid businesses like Panda Express because of the coronavirus. 

Also in California, the University of California, Berkeley health services department posted on its Instagram that xenophobia is a "normal" reaction amid a virus outbreak. The post has since been deleted.

CNN reported that In New York, a man attacked an Asian woman wearing a facemask and justified his actions by loudly proclaiming the woman as a "diseased b*tch.  If you watch the video, the attack is a visible reminder that fear-mongering is a reality in this country.

To mitigate the fear, I have noticed myself being more vigilant around anyone who's not Asian. I am not ignorant of the fear, hysteria, and violence perpetrated against Asians and how the Chinese are being blamed unmercifully as the root cause.  I have also noticed myself trying to act more "American" as a means to distance myself from the virus. This means denying more aspects of my Chinese heritage than I would like and highlighting more of my "whiteness."

I try not to speak Chinese in public. I try to avoid looking like a foreigner. I dress as American or western as possible. I speak English more loudly so those around me may feel more comfortable knowing I can't be perceived as a foreigner. And ironically, I'm avoiding wearing a face mask, which might imply I'm infected with the virus.

Economically, Asian-themed businesses in my hometown of Seattle report being negatively affected by the virus scare. I suspected that would happen. But what I didn't consider was the personal impact it would have on me as a therapist in private practice. Yet as the coronavirus death toll continues to rise, I can't help but wonder both now and in the future if non-Asian potential clients are deliberately choosing therapists of a different race due to this fear.  

In addition to this, I am already rethinking my own vacation plans. This isn't so much because of my fear of being infected but more so because of how people would respond to me at airports, international cities, or tourist destinations like Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon. It might be a bit extreme for me to think this way, but it just takes one stare, one comment, or one act of hostility to confirm how vile and prejudiced people can become towards those of us of Asian ancestry.