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Let’s Stop the Scapegoating During a Global Pandemic

Just like tens of millions of people sheltering in place in the U.S., I’m adjusting to the new realities and worries of day-to-day life during the COVID-19 pandemic. But on top of worrying about my elderly family members, U.S. hospitals’ shortage of basic medical equipment, or where I can find toilet paper and eggs, I have another fear. Like other Americans of East Asian descent (including citizens and otherwise), I worry that I might be attacked on the street or in a store because of my race.   There are so many news reports that spur my concerns. For example, on March 14, a man in Midland, Texas, attacked an Asian American family shopping at a Sam’s Club store, stabbing three members of the family, including a two-year-old and a six-year-old child, as well as an employee. The attacker said that he targeted the family because he believed, based on the family’s race, that they were spreading the COVID-19 virus. The FBI categorized the attack as a hate crime, and more generally warned of a potential surge in bias-based attacks on Asian Americans.   The FBI’s warning is all too accurate. Civil rights organizations Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council logged more than 650 reports of bias-based attacks on Asian Americans in the two weeks before March 26. Some of those reports included cases in which people of Asian descent reported being refused service at grocery stores, spit on and verbally assaulted, and in some cases, physically assaulted.   President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other U.S. officials have deliberately referred to SARS-CoV-2 as “the Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.” This runs against the advice of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control that such labels lead to dangerous scapegoating and widespread ignorance, just when accurate public health information is critically needed. In propagating this smear, these officials have fomented racism and overt acts of harassment and violence against Asian Americans. Even when confronted by reporters’ questions about links to the rise in anti-Asian bias attacks and the WHO’s stern warnings not to tag diseases with a geographical or ethnic label, the President continues to insist that “Chinese virus” is appropriate and “not racist.”   History teaches us that the scapegoating of immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants is nothing new. Immigrants have been similarly blamed for infectious diseases throughout our history, according to Professor Alan Kraut: Irish immigrants were blamed for cholera outbreaks in the 1830s, Jewish immigrants for tuberculosis in the late 19th century, and Italian immigrants for polio in the early 20th century. In 1900, fears of the bubonic plague in San Francisco spurred calls for Chinatown to be burned to the ground and, horrifically, public health officials forcibly seized Chinese residents on the streets and injected them with an experimental vaccine.    Physicians and medical historians also note that even though immigrants historically have not in fact been responsible for “importing” contagion, ethnic communities in the U.S. have still been characterized as “dirty” and blamed for spreading disease. This type of xenophobic and racist scapegoating can have fatal consequences.   Even when people of color are not themselves physically injured, racist scapegoating can leave an indelible mark. In 1982, a Chinese American named Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white autoworkers in a Detroit suburb. His attackers believed he was responsible for the loss of jobs in the U.S. auto industry based upon his perceived identity. One of Chin’s killers, Ronald Ebens, began the attack by crying out, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work!” I was only eleven years old when Vincent Chin was murdered, and his death has stayed with me ever since. Chin’s death by racism shook my childhood sense of safety and belonging in my own country. Violence spurred by yesterday’s fears of lost jobs or past pandemics are today’s COVID-19 crisis — a way for people to vent their fears and rage, and place the blame on someone they can turn into a foreigner, a nobody, a thing less than human.   We have to learn from this history. No pandemic, public health, or economic crisis, and no amount of fear, should give rise to prejudice and discrimination by any American — much less by the President of the United States. We need to collectively unite to fight scapegoating and discrimination, and each of us can take responsibility.   First, when elected officials like our President foment racist scapegoating, all Americans need to denounce him and call on other leaders, such as our local and state officials, to join the fight against his divisive actions.     Second, Asian Americans, like everyone else in the United States, should stand in unity with people across the country and other marginalized groups who are especially vulnerable during this pandemic. The answer is not, as former presidential candidate Andrew Yang proposed recently, to “show our American-ness in ways we never have before.” Asian Americans don’t need to prove our patriotism to anyone. But we all need to step up and help raise the alarm that African Americans are contracting and dying of coronavirus at disproportionate rates because of racial disparities in health care — just as African Americans are joining Asian Americans in decrying President Trump’s anti-Asian slurs. We should support Native and Indigenous communities, who are also suffering disproportionately from a lack of adequate health care and basic infrastructure such as running water. We must show solidarity with the disability community, which is contending with the potential for deadly discrimination in the allocation of scarce medical interventions.   Finally, we must all remember: Any response to COVID-19 should be grounded in science and public health, not xenophobia. Everyone deserves to feel safe, without fear of violence and discrimination, especially during these extraordinary times.