How to Support Asian Americans Facing Violence Because of Covid-19 Misinformation

An urgent reminder that baselessly racializing the virus has dire consequences

Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The recent spate of violent anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States finally caught the attention of the media this week. Earlier this month in San Francisco, an elderly Thai-American man was killed. A 61-year-old Filipino-American man in New York was slashed across the face while waiting for the subway. Many more incidents, often involving the elderly, have been documented. Now, as celebrations for the Lunar New Year begin, many Asians fear for their safety.

Anti-Asian violence and abuse has sharply increased since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially toward vulnerable groups including the elderly, the youth, and women. Even Asian-American health care workers working to beat the coronavirus have not been spared from the abuse. This is largely due to the mischaracterization of Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus,” “Asian virus,” or “kung flu” by many people, including Donald Trump, who also promoted the idea that the coronavirus was leaked by a Chinese lab. This week, World Health Organization scientists reconfirmed that the virus was not released by a lab and has a natural origin, as experts had asserted previously.

It bears repeating that Covid-19 does not discriminate by race: It can infect anyone and be transmitted by anyone. It will take global cooperation to beat it.

Despite the scientific evidence, anti-Asian sentiment linking Asians and the coronavirus continues to circulate. Just this week, the editorial board of the New York Post called the WHO’s latest assessment of the coronavirus’s origin “whitewashing.”

I asked San Francisco State University sociologist Russell Jeung, PhD, why anti-Asian hate has continued during the pandemic and what allies can do about it. Jeung is the chair and professor of the university’s Asian American studies department and co-lead of Stop AAPI Hate, a center for tracking and responding to hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that was created in response to increased xenophobia during the pandemic.

Jeung says two trends are driving anti-Asian hate: First, broad racism, fomented by fear of the pandemic and Trump’s political rhetoric, which led to hate speech and, in turn, hate violence. And then, racist policies, like barring the immigration of Chinese researchers, banning WeChat, and cutting racial sensitivity training. The effects, he said, have been “chilling”: Asian-Americans are reporting high rates of anxiety and depression, experiencing racial trauma, and losing their livelihoods as people avoid businesses like restaurants and nail salons. Seventy-five percent of the community has expressed fear about experiencing racism.

“We need that counter messaging, which is sort of sad, to treat people like people rather than as viruses.”

“Words matter,” he said, likening false beliefs about Asians and the coronavirus to those that lead people to shun mask-wearing. “So since words matter, we need constant messaging from other sources to remind people to wear masks, that the virus doesn’t discriminate, that we need to treat each other with civility and respect. Seeing how much the hate rhetoric has led to hate violence, we need [statements like] Biden’s memo to counter it.”

At the end of January, President Biden released a memo committing to combat racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In it, he said the government must recognize its role in “furthering these xenophobic sentiments through the actions of political leaders, including references to the Covid-19 pandemic by the geographic location of its origin.”

Jeung believes in the power of similar statements released by organizations, churches, and institutions calling for racial justice, solidarity, and respect. “There’s so much hate messaging out there that’s been normalized,” he said. “We need that counter messaging, which is sort of sad, to treat people like people rather than as viruses,” adding: “It’s so basic.”

Long-running racism in the United States characterized Asians as a “yellow peril,” painting them as outsiders despite their long history in this country. Jeung hopes that both anti-Asian racism and racist policies will be addressed with better public education and ethnic studies. He is also calling for greater civil rights enforcement so that anti-Asian abuse like discrimination in the workplace or the use of racial slurs — incidents that are significantly underreported compared to physical assaults — will also be regulated.

While structural changes get underway, there is work to be done on the community level as well. “[We’re calling for] our local community to stand up and to go outside and to be neighbors to each other, to be out, walking around celebrating Lunar New Year,” Jeung says. “And having neighbors look out for neighbors.” Cross-racial community projects, he adds, can help bring people together through a shared identity that goes beyond race.

“I think everybody wants to safeguard the elderly. Everybody wants to solve Covid-19. I think we can come together around these larger issues,” he says. “And then at the same time, build those relationships that we want.”

For a list of organizations working to ensure Asian American safety in American cities during the pandemic, check out this resource from New York-based writer and activist Eda Yu.

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A blog from Medium for Covid-19 news, advice, and commentary.

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Yasmin Tayag

Yasmin Tayag

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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