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No, Asian-Americans aren't responsible for COVID-19

Photo Credit: Jason Leung / Unsplash

This January, a 52-year-old Asian-American woman was shot in the head with a flare gun in Oakland’s Chinatown District during the afternoon. She was later hospitalized. The last report indicated that the woman was in stable condition at the hospital.

Then in the same month, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Asian-American man, was viciously shoved to the ground while taking his daily morning stroll through his San Francisco neighborhood. He never regained consciousness after the violent attack and sadly passed away two days later from the sustained injuries. His step-son-in-law, Eric Lawson said, in an interview with KTVU: “If you see the video there’s nothing non-intentional about it…..For him to come from all the way across the street what else could have motivated him?"

In February, Kathy Duoung’s mother was targeted leaving a bank in San Jose. After withdrawing cash for Lunar New Year gifts, she was getting into her car when "a car blocked her in, jumped out, opened the door, grabbed her purse and then ran off," said Duong. She went on to say "It should be a festive time, it should be a celebration, you should be thinking of family and friends, instead you are being targeted.”

In early February, a 91-year-old man was forcefully shoved to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown. He has been inaccurately described as Asian in many news accounts, but court documents have revealed the survivor’s name as Gilbert Diaz. Carl Chan, a community leader and president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said the victim was actually Latino. Although Mr. Diaz isn’t Asian-American, he was walking in Oakland’s Chinatown which could have contributed to his attack. Even if this assault didn’t have a racial motive, it doesn’t negate its horrific and sinister nature. Moreover, it reveals how the elderly population is being targeted for acts of aggression due to their vulnerable status which further adds to the heinousness of these crimes.

Drawings of Vicha Ratanapakdee were carried at an Anti-Asian Racism Rally in San Jose. Credit: NBC Bay Area

Despite the police departments’ reluctance to classify these violent incidents as racially motivated, the facts prove otherwise. All of these attacks took place in Chinatowns or the Chinatown District of the city. Many of the victims were Asian-American and elderly.

The perpetrators went out of their way to target these individuals. These recurring patterns are no coincidence. It’s glaringly obvious that these weren’t just cases of elder abuse, which is what the assailants are being charged with if caught, but racial hate crimes.

Manju Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, a coalition of California community-based groups, articulates "These attacks taking place in the Bay Area are part of a larger trend of anti-Asian American/Pacific Islander hate brought on in many ways by COVID-19, as well as some of the xenophobic policies and racist rhetoric that were pushed forward by the prior administration."

Since March 19, 2020, there have been 3,795 firsthand reports of hate experienced by Asian-Americans across the nation made to Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate. This rise, as mentioned before, can be attributed to the scapegoating of China for the COVID-19 outbreak and, by extension, Asians in general. Former President Trump and his administration are partially responsible for circulating and then perpetuating the racist rhetoric and sentiments surrounding COVID-19 in the United States.

In President Trump’s March 19, 2020 daily press briefing, he called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and a couple of days later would go on to defend this title by stating “It’s not racist at all...It comes from China, that’s why.” However, this directly ignores the World Health Organization’s guideline that geographic locations should not be included in the names of new human infectious diseases so as to avoid the stigma that this naming practice can provoke.

The case of COVID-19 demonstrates the implications of including a geographic location in the name of a disease. It has led to xenophobia, stigma against Asians, specifically Asian-Americans in the U.S., and their subsequent othering which has and continues to manifest itself through hate crimes, hate speech, and other forms of discrimination.

Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, stated “There’s a clear correlation between President Trump’s incendiary comments, his insistence on using the term Chinese virus, and the subsequent hate speech spread on social media and the hate violence directed toward us.”

Furthering this sentiment, Melissa Borja, a University of Michigan history professor and Harvard fellow who researches hate crime against the Asian community, said “Terms like “China virus” and “Wuhan flu” can lead to great harm.”

A rally at the Los Angeles State Historical Park in February. Credit: Genaro Molina / LA Times

The racialization of COVID-19 has had economic consequences on the Asian-American community, seen in the decline in popularity of Chinatowns and Asian-owned businesses. Paired with the economic setback that COVID-19 has created for the majority of the population, many of these businesses and people have drastically suffered.

The perpetuation of this false, racist, xenophobic narrative is stealing the livelihoods of the Asian-Americans. A published UCLA study, from July 2020, found that as COVID-19 began to spread in the US, the Asian-American unemployment rate increased faster than that of their white counterparts. The unemployment rate for Asian-Americans was around 3% in February 2020 and dropped to 15% in May 2020. The study also found that the Asian-American population had one of the lowest unemployment rates of any racial group during COVID-19.

It’s important to note that this isn't the first time that Asians have been blamed for the outbreak of a virus. In 2003, there was a local SARS virus outbreak in Canada. The culpability was placed onto Asian Canadians, which culminated in Torontonians enacting an informal boycott of the Chinese Community that devastated Asian-owned small businesses.

This trend of Asians being scapegoated for viruses in North American can be traced back to the late 1800s when Asians, mostly Chinese, who immigrated to the United States were stereotyped as “immoral, unsanitary, prone to consuming ‘foul; meats like rats, and carriers of diseases like leprosy or smallpox,” according to Jenn Fang. These associations of Asians with dirtiness, uncleanliness, filthiness have created the perpetual cycle of Asians being blamed whenever a new, unknown virus emerges.

When COVID-19 was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization in January 2020, I began to hear casual hostile, racist remarks directed at Asian-Americans and associated places or things.

This escalated and became more frequent, in March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and the United States proclaimed it as a national emergency. It was shocking to witness people, some of which I knew, regurgitating these baseless, illogical accusations. How was an entire group of people, who weren’t from or had visited the place where the virus originated, responsible? Furthermore, to blame an entire country for a virus? Especially considering that the rapid spread of COVID-19 and its long-lasting presence in the United States can largely be attributed to the ineffective leadership and lack of action in this country. It’s absolutely absurd.

If you have bought into any of this xenophobic rhetoric towards Asians or are still promoting it, then I urge you to reexamine your views. Take the time to reflect on why you held or hold these beliefs and how they unconsciously influenced your behavior towards Asian-Americans. Think about how these can have dangerous repercussions for people.

The rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans, especially the elderly population, exemplifies the damaging, horrific consequences of this ignorance. And the next time society, the media, or the nation’s leaders push xenophobic rhetoric and attitudes, don’t be so quick to feed into the racial fear-mongering and stigmatization.

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