In the wake of the world’s latest pandemic, anti-Asian rhetoric has found its way back into mainstream American landscape with a startling ease.
Those of you who have been paying attention may note that the racialization of foreign-borne disease is far from a new phenomenon. Consider the public reaction to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, mass hysteria described by CNN correspondent Robin Wright in the same year as “...increasing racial profiling,” and “reviving imagery of the ‘Dark Continent.’”
In September 2014, the first case of the Ebola virus was reported on American soil when Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian native visiting family members in Dallas, Texas, was diagnosed. Duncan later died as a result of the illness. He was the first of two casualties related to the outbreak to occur in America, with the other claiming the life of Nebraska surgeon Martin Salia the following month.
As the death toll rose, cultural anxieties concerning the Ebola virus not only tainted the public’s perception of West Africa, where the outbreak originated but of African citizens themselves. Fearing widespread contagion, many Americans appeared increasingly supportive of an African travel ban, as well as a federally enforced quarantine on African nationals in the U.S.
Seeking to take advantage of agitated racial tensions precipitated by the outbreak, a number of reactionary groups took to public forums to depict African Americans as potential carriers of the virus, even those who had never so much as set foot outside of the country.
Most commonly, these depictions took the form of jokes and internet memes. Though many claimed the jokes were harmless, the anti-black sentiment driving the movement was clear. This proved detrimental to social progress in America and the effects are still felt today.
And yet history has a way of repeating itself. It comes as no surprise that similar patterns of bigotry have begun to emerge in response to the outbreak of the new respiratory illness, coronavirus.
First observed in China’s commercial Wuhan district in December, the virus has made its way overseas to at least 26 countries, including 11 confirmed cases in the mainland U.S. In the now-quarantined district of Wuhan, the virus has claimed the lives of hundreds; however, among 176 international patients, no deaths have been reported.
Xenophobic fringe blocs have already begun rolling out a slew of alarmist content falsely portraying Asians and those of Asian descent as being biologically predisposed to the illness due to racial factors.
In addition to being categorically unscientific, these claims also constitute harmful racial stereotyping. Not only does the spread of such misinformation endanger society on a functional level, it can also cause harm on a personal level.
Such was the case last month in Sydney, Australia, when bystanders, fearing the coronavirus, failed to attempt potentially life-saving CPR on a 60-year-old Chinese man who had collapsed in the street. The man did not have the virus; it had been a heart attack which had caused him to collapse. He died later that night.
While this is certainly one of the more extreme scenarios involving the dangers of widespread misinformation, the narrative it presents is not an uncommon one. The mass panic surrounding the coronavirus has caused many people to alienate or otherwise mistreat their Asian and Asian-American peers.
Such reactions are based primarily in fear. Fear is the most dangerous pandemic we face today; deadlier than Ebola and the coronavirus combined. Fear is insidious. But the truth is that we can’t place a quarantine on fear. What we can and must do, particularly during times like these, is combat it with truth and reason and, yes, with kindness.
Grace Pulliam is an 18-year-old creative writing junior from Zachary, Louisiana.