In a time of so much division, it’s unusual for Americans to unite around much of anything—even a common fear. But as was the case in the wake of 9/11, the COVID-19 pandemic is provoking a sense of profound uncertainty, fear, and grief in all of us, forcing every American to grapple with brutal questions about the health of our loved ones and neighbors, the stability of our economy, and the future of our nation and our world.
The virus has already touched every family, be it tenuously or intimately, in our restless imaginations or in our own homes—unlike a cancer diagnosis or an isolated layoff, we are experiencing this trauma together. And despite the awful circumstances, there is a certain feeling of comfort in the fact that we are not alone as we find our way through this; with that solidarity comes hope.
But for Asian Americans, a second virus has reemerged on the trail of the first—one that we don’t have the luxury of enduring alongside our fellow Americans. As so often happens in moments of public fear, racism and xenophobia have surged alongside COVID-19. They may not always kill, but they do invite violence. They may not spread through the air, but they will linger long after this virus has been defeated.
Numerous lawmakers, members of the press, and even the President of the United States have insisted for no defensible reason on referring to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus,” “China virus,” and “Chinese coronavirus.” One White House official reportedly used the slur “Kung Flu” to describe the virus to a CBS reporter. And on Wednesday, it was reported that the G7 could not issue a joint statement on the pandemic because of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence that COVID-19 be referred to as the “Wuhan virus”—a holdup that the Secretary did not deny.
It turns out that racism and xenophobia are quite contagious—never more so than when they metastasize from the top. News outlets have already reported that Asian Americans in states across the country have been the targets of verbal and physical attacks linked to the hysteria around COVID-19. I can speak to this personally, having been subject to a litany of racist attacks on social media in recent days, and having received messages from my Asian American friends every day about what they are experiencing. I've even heard from Asian American medical professionals who have had patients refuse their treatment because of their race. On top of the fears we all share about COVID-19, many Asian Americans are scared for their safety, for their parents’ safety, and for the safety of their community during this time of heightened racism.
This is not a new phenomenon, of course— as an Asian American woman dedicated to protecting the rights of sexual assault survivors across the globe through my organization, Rise, I know all too well how xenophobic stereotypes can magnify when they come into contact with other fears. In my field of sexual assault advocacy, it is well known that the exotification of Asian women’s bodies dehumanizes them and increases their risk of sexual violence.
Now, our own leaders are exotifying a virus in a shameless effort to direct Americans’ confusion and anger toward the supposed foreignness of the threat. In doing so, they threaten to dehumanize and stereotype millions of Asian Americans—human beings with family, friends, and neighbors at risk.
We have fought against this contagion before—centuries ago, when ‘Yellow Peril’ tagged a generation of Asian immigrants as carriers of disease, and much more recently when the SARS epidemic fueled anti-Asian racism in 2003. But the truth remains that COVID-19 doesn’t see race, and cannot be warded off with prejudice.
Asian Americans will continue to stand on the frontlines to curb the spread of COVID-19—individuals like Dr. Ashita Ganguly, an infectious disease doctor caring for patients in Louisiana, CNN National Correspondent Kyung Lah, who continued bringing the news on COVID-19 to millions across the world even after she was subjected to racial slurs last Friday, and countless others.
But even as we all do our part to fight against this pandemic, it is the responsibility of every American to stand strong against the creeping, second threat of racist rhetoric. The former is striking at our health, but the latter is striking at our values—and in the end, we are going to need both to truly survive this moment. No one is powerless when we come together, and in a time of global crisis, we should fight for the things that bring us closer to one another, rather than give in to what drives us apart. If we fail, we risk spreading a disease that could be just as costly to our nation as COVID-19.