The Racial Implications of Talking About Coronavirus



Eva Wen, Maroon-News Staff

The recent Coronavirus outbreak has led to heated arguments around increasing racial tension and xenophobia towards Asian populations around the world. Besides the worldwide protests against Chinese travelers and pronounced racial remarks towards Asian population, a now-deleted Instagram post from University of California, Berkeley has catalyzed the debate about xenophobia even further. The deleted post from UC Berkeley suggested that it was “normal” to feel “xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings.” Xenophobia was in a list among other feelings such as anxiety and anger. UC Berkeley’s post sparked an enraged backlash both within the Asian population and out. People have recounted the long history of discrimination towards Chinese and have claimed UC Berkeley’s post “simply unacceptable.”

Xenophobia, the prejudice against people from other countries, has been particularly targeted towards the Asian population since the outbreak of Coronavirus. A considerable number of people associate Coronavirus with the Asian population and thus fear and blame them for introducing Coronavirus to the world. As a result, the Asian population has become the scapegoats for this epidemic outbreak, just like how people of African descent were scapegoated for Ebola and Mexicans and Latinos for H1N1. This kind of xenophobia can be traced far back in history to Western political colonialism, where Chinese and Chinese-American people have often been scapegoats for multiple infectious diseases and sanitation issues within the United States. There have been cartoons and slogans that depicted people of Chinese descent as unsanitary and frequent carriers of infectious diseases. Such depictions also aggravated many of the long-established negative stereotypes about the Asian population and Asian cultures. However, it is important to understand that an epidemic outbreak cannot be blamed upon a race or ethnicity—an epidemic does not work that way.

Due to such heightened racial tension around the discussion of Coronavirus, people have started tiptoeing around any conversations of the Coronavirus epidemic. For example, I have noticed people avoiding bringing up Coronavirus in front of me because I am Chinese. 

However, this racism and xenophobia can serve as a distraction from the real dangers at hand. For example, Columbia University recently sent out emails advising students to self-isolate if they have traveled to China in the past 14 days, the longest period Coronavirus can stay dormant in a carrier. My friend at Columbia was enraged when she received this “xenophobic” email. However, this email was not racist or xenophobic. It was reasonable and cautious. It is an unfortunate reality that China is an area densely populated with potential carriers and patients of Coronavirus. Therefore, it is reasonable for someone to suspect a higher risk of Coronavirus infection within an area where Coronavirus is largely prevalent. The email does not target those who are from China but gives suggestions to those who had traveled to a region most prevalent with the epidemic. 

These types of cautionary warnings are neither against the Chinese population nor the Asian race. As potential carriers of an epidemic, people are only being socially responsible by attending physical checkouts and decreasing contact with other people.

However, it is still necessary to acknowledge the heightened racial tension and discrimination against people of Asian descent during times like these. For example, A French newspaper wrote in its front-page headline “ALERTE JAUNE”—“YELLOW ALERT.” In response, Asian citizens have launched a hashtag that translates to “I’m not a virus” to fight back against this overt public racism.

Thus, it is necessary to be sensitive concerning racism and xenophobia when talking about Coronavirus. However, instead of avoiding discussions around Coronavirus altogether, people should work to find ways to discuss the epidemic openly and cautiously in order to control it and try to move forward. So yes, it is okay to talk about Coronavirus. However, it is also necessary to talk about Coronavirus without biases in order to move forward with practical and sensitive solutions.