Media Production Editor
The World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Jan. 30, and the number of diagnosed cases of the disease rises each day, surpassing 150,000 on Mar. 15. Yet as fast as the disease appears to be spreading globally, it is becoming increasingly clear that attacks and racism directed towards Asians around the world are spreading even faster. A New York City man attacked an Asian woman wearing a face mask on the subway; two Indiana hotels refused service to an Asian family out of fears for the disease; Ukraine protesters attacked a bus carrying Chinese evacuees. This increase in fear-mongering and anti-Asian racism has effects more detrimental than people may realize, as the attacks surpass healthy self-care, stigmatizing individuals and potentially delaying diagnoses.
When the disease first materialized, headlines about anti-Asian racism did not immediately break, as the discrimination appeared to be more or less marginal or localized within communities. I admit that I didn’t hear of the first attacks against Asians and did not realize the issue that would soon arise. My first experiences within classrooms and online stemmed from jokes about the disease itself – when somebody would cough, we would joke that they were infected.
But over time, I noticed that the jokes were being made primarily against Asian Americans. Looking hard enough, it becomes clear that on social media especially, racism flourishes under the guise of memes and jests. Jokes about the coronavirus feature an Asian person coughing and surrounding individuals scattering. And some online racism is less underhand than others – fan accounts of Asian pop culture icons, even photos of Kpop stars, receive comments filled with racial slurs and users stating they should be avoided.
Recognizing the underlying racism behind jokes and realizing the backhanded nature of some acts doesn’t mean that taking precautionary measures is mistaken or should be avoided. Washing your hands and covering your coughs and sneezes is still recommended for the flu season, and for your health in general. But when an individual’s “precautionary measures” become directed towards specific ethnicities and target Asians specifically, that person crosses the line from self-care to directing their ignorance and fears at another human being.
A since-deleted post by the Berkeley Health Services Instagram stated that alongside anxiety and hypervigilance, xenophobia and “fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia” were common reactions to the outbreak. The normalization of this kind of behavior and mistreatment towards Asians not only perpetuates irrational and misinformed fears but stigmatizes and shames innocent members of the community. When these hyperbolized fears are exacerbated and endorsed by misinformation and ignorance in the public, they lead to excessive fear and push people who may actually have the disease into a corner and discourage them from getting tested.
While making jokes about the disease can lighten situations, it’s important to stay informed and realize that a joke taken too far could cause damage too great to be taken back. Stay healthy, but don’t take your fears out on an undeserving individual.
(Sources: BBC, CNN, Daily Cal, NBC, WHO)