The Coronavirus, above all, is a scathing exposé. The xenophobia and misguided panic permeating many Western nations reveal the tendency of believing whatever is comfortable to believe. But when it comes to pandemics and novel viruses, believing comfortable lies and simplifying a borderless disease down to a skin color doesn’t work. While scientists and doctors may do all they can to keep the situation under control, the pandemic will only grow if the public continues to conflate a virus’s origin and its spread.
In times of crisis, people resort to instinctive prejudices and emotions, trying to make sense of this widespread fear by searching for a single cause, something they can point their finger at. We don’t question our logic or process our paranoia with science; we fear, we theorize, and we believe. When the Black Death hit Europe and people noticed that relatively fewer Jews were dying, they accused Jews of intentionally spreading the disease and killed them. In 2014, it was the Ebola crisis and West Africans who faced racism. In 2003, SARS and Asians. History speaks volumes about how people of color have always been the scapegoat of misinformation during such crises, and how race, disease, and information have always been intertwined.
Whether it’s getting stares for coughing, being told to “go back to China,” or being beaten brutally, overt racism against Asians has been peaking in the US over the past few weeks, not unlike the waves of disease-based xenophobia in 2014, 2003, or the 14th century. But this seemingly sudden rise of anti-Asian sentiment, spreading faster than the virus itself, is not a singular phenomenon. Rather, it is a glaring red flag signaling how deeply ingrained xenophobia and white supremacy are in Western societies. Racism emerges in crises when instinct or emotions win over science; in other words, racism has been so deeply internalized that it’s what we instinctively turn to.
To unpack this anti-Asian sentiment requires that we examine history. The perception of Asian bodies as unwanted viruses is rooted in a history of Sinophobic systems established by Western dominance. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese immigrant laborers. Similarly, Trump’s restrictions on Chinese students since 2018 displays that hostility toward China and Chinese people remains prevalent. But fundamentally, sinophobia is rooted in systems of US hegemony and imperialism that control the narrative surrounding all non-Western nations and peoples.
Today, the “model minority” myth makes it seem as though Asian-Americans are the “successful” ones that face little to no discrimination. Supposedly, they’re the harmless, intelligent, and hardworking immigrants whose racial qualms are minor, relatively speaking—that is, until a spreading virus turns out to have originated in China. Then suddenly, “model minority” becomes “yellow fever,” and once-harmless bodies become disease carriers. As for non-diaspora Asians, they become the “exotic” ones who sell and eat disease-carrying animals.
Racial issues should have no connection to disease outbreaks; race cannot be scientifically defined, while diseases are purely scientific. Yet because of our desire for false security over facts, race has become disease, and disease has become race. If people were listening to science, they would know that an Asian-American is no more likely to have the Coronavirus than anyone else. People would be more concerned about implementing healthcare for all, because they would know that simply avoiding Asians does not keep them safe. They would be panicking more about the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s lack of testing than about Asian immigrants. Before it’s too late, the public should listen to science: diseases don’t discriminate.