SAJU: Coronavirus panic is in part race-based
Column: Pride, not Prejudice
The constant barrage of information around the coronavirus and its Asian origins focused in the media has caused visceral reactions from colleges across the nation.
The anti-Chinese sentiments, which are framed as concern for health, have extended to every student of Asian descent. Students have actually posted online about avoiding Asian classmates or refraining from going to Chinatowns. Some of these posts are simply intended to be humorous memes, but their continuous impact on the student psyche is immeasurable.
Charles Bui, a first-year at the University of Houston, said that the environment of the campus has visibly shifted: He has scrolled past dehumanizing posts online about the virus and revealed he had seen people express relief after they stepped off an elevator with him.
Certain campuses have taken measures to handle the situation. In the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, two undergraduate students originally from Wuhan, China, were moved into a special dorm room with each other instead of the American roommates they were promised.
Aaron Li, a senior at Cornell University from China, made an anonymous Google form where Chinese students could submit questions or concerns about the coronavirus. One student told his friends that he had visited California over break instead of telling his peers he went home to China, because he was afraid of what they would say.
Some international students are now faced with simultaneously having to worry about being racially profiled and the health of family members back home.
There are only a few confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States, but on Jan. 31, the White House declared a public health emergency. There are concerns about the coronavirus developing into an international pandemic, but the repercussions of the extensive media coverage are felt by Asian communities in the United States.
People of Asian descent have revealed that they feel the need to suppress coughing or blowing a runny nose because they are afraid of stares or social isolation. Officials have explained that the threat to the American public is low, and the risk of influenza is more concerning than that of the coronavirus.
The reaction of the public around the coronavirus mirrors the anti-African sentiment that surrounded the Ebola virus years ago. The Ebola virus outbreak of 2013-2016 had international psychosocial implications: “reports of stigma, discrimination and blame targeted at communities perceived to be of African descent in other non-African countries increased due to fear of infection,” according to the World Health Organization.
In this historical moment, Americans transformed their fear about the potential for infection into targeted prejudice for an entire race. America’s history of racism around individuals of Asian descent, specifically those of Chinese descent, dates back hundreds of years.
In the late 1800s, white labor unions lobbied around the issue of blocking Chinese workers from entering the United States. In 1882, Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act — while the number of Chinese people in the United States plummeted, anti-Chinese sentiment persisted.
During the city-wide outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1900, San Francisco shut Chinese individuals out of public hospitals. In response to this, the Chinese community organized its own private hospital which was staffed with both experts trained in Western medical practices and experts specializing in Chinese herbalist practices.
When the great San Francisco earthquake struck in 1906, political factions lobbied against the rebuilding of Chinatown, but lost. The need for tourism caused city leaders to work with the Chinese community to rebuild Chinatown into the rich and beautiful place it is today.
It is necessary for state authorities and school administrators to be conscious of this historical pattern in order to understand how to manage a situation without provoking race-based panic. Unfortunately, this year has been another chapter in the history of American racism toward the Chinese community.
The University of California, Berkeley recently released a post that listed xenophobia as one of the common reactions to the news of the coronavirus, even though there is nothing normal or acceptable about racially profiling other students.
The fear you have about getting infected cannot manifest in the interactions you have with Asian people. If it does, we will have a much larger problem on our hands than the coronavirus.
Neha Saju is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore planning on majoring in political science and history and minoring in English. Her column, "Pride, Not Prejudice," runs on alternate Fridays.
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