Perplexity, paranoia, and prejudice: social issues caused by the coronavirus outbreak

by Elsa Ying | April 6, 2020

The world partially covered by a face mask. Artwork by Elsa Ying (’23)

In the past few months, the recent news of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has incited many instances of racism around the world. Ever since the first outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, the capital of the Chinese province of Hubei, people began to associate COVID-19 with people of Asian descent. As a result, many members of the general public increasingly avoided Asian people, Asian-owned businesses, and generally Asian-populated locations. This naturally sparked controversy, as some argued that avoiding all Asians, specifically, Chinese people, was xenophobic and ultimately unnecessary. Still, others insisted that it was a logical precaution to take because the novel coronavirus originated in a Chinese province.

Even before COVID-19 spread to the United States, people already feared for the worst. Several companies in the Bay Area, which has a famously large Asian population, began to request employees who had recently traveled to China or hosted relatives from that region to stay home for a fourteen day quarantine. Meanwhile, Chinese food, which had only recently been a popular commodity worldwide, started to gain a notorious reputation, and Asian restaurants and grocery stores alike lost customers rapidly. Many smaller family-owned businesses even reached out to their customer bases trying—and in most cases, failing—to assure the public that employees were not infected by the coronavirus. San Francisco’s Chinatown, typically a major tourist destination, saw a startling decrease in traffic within days. The repercussions of such “precautions” taken by members of the general public include the loss of incomes and jobs for much of the Asian population.

Of course, businesses were not the only victims of the widespread racism and xenophobia. In everyday locations like train stations, bus stops, and supermarkets, Asians were subtly ignored at best and faced outright abuse at worst. As COVID-19 continued to spread at an alarming rate, the paranoia and consequent racism of the general public intensified as well. Soon, an astounding number of Asians around the world could testify to verbal and physical attacks from others. Within the last month, over a thousand Asians from different countries of origin reported assaults. Victims ranged from a Singaporean student in London to senior citizens in San Francisco. All around the world, Asians began to fear for their lives.

The sudden influx of racism directed towards Asians raised a variety of responses on social media. Almost immediately, people took to online platforms to share their own horrific experiences and advocate for an end to the xenophobia. Despite this, many misinformed people including President Trump continued to refer to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus,” sparking discussions on hate speech. Many celebrities of Asian descent stepped forward to explain how the term has had disastrous effects on the Asian-American population.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that the official name of the disease is COVID-19. While the WHO has historically named viruses and diseases after their countries of origin, the organization recognized the backlash created by this naming convention in 2015. Since then, the WHO has encouraged scientists and the general public to use monikers related to qualities of the disease such as its symptoms, severity, or even the pathogen involved. It is therefore appropriate to refer to this particular virus as the coronavirus and to refer to the disease it causes as COVID-19, which stands for “coronavirus disease originating in 2019.” While the name of such an impactful disease might not seem particularly significant in the face of physical assault and widespread stigma, simply making a conscious choice to use appropriate, mindful language during this crisis can contribute to social change for the better.

Categories: Opinions

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