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How San Francisco is fighting novel coronavirus — and the stigma that comes with it

On Wednesday, California officials confirmed the state’s first death from novel coronavirus, as the number of infections nationwide continues to rise. But beyond the serious medical implications of the virus, it is also provoking fear, suspicion and ethnic stereotyping. Amna Nawaz reports from San Francisco, a city long known for its ties to China and the Chinese-American community.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our continuing coverage of the coronavirus and the many ways it is impacting society.

    As we reported, California officials confirmed today the first death in the state from COVID-19.

    Beyond the serious illnesses it can cause, the virus, and the fear around it, are also having a major effect in San Francisco, a city long known for its ties to China and the Chinese American community.

    Amna Nawaz has that story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    On any given day, the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown are packed. But these days, it's quiet.

  • Gimmy Park Li:

    People aren't coming. They're not coming because of those concerns about coronavirus.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Gimmy Park Li has been giving Chinatown tours for over 10 years. She's called the area home her whole life.

  • Gimmy Park Li:

    We are on Grant Avenue. This is the main street where all tourists and visitors will make their destination.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But residents and business owners here, she says, have been bearing the brunt of racist and xenophobic backlash, as the novel coronavirus spreads and Asian Americans are unfairly targeted.

  • Gimmy Park Li:

    Restaurants tell us that they have less clientele coming for meals. In our company, we have noticed a downward tick in the number of people who are coming.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have already seen that?

  • Gimmy Park Li:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Are you worried about that getting worse?

  • Gimmy Park Li:

    It could.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    An estimated 26 million tourists came to San Francisco in 2019, bringing with them billions of dollars. For millions from around the world, this Chinatown, 24 blocks housing the largest and oldest Chinese community in North America, is a must-see destination.

    That steady stream of tourists is the lifeblood of Kevin Chan's business.

  • Kevin Chan:

    If the tourists don't come in, this place is dead.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory was started by Chan's family in 191962. Today, the storefront is a Chinatown institution, preserving the original recipe, machines, and traditions on which it was built.

    Over the years, Chan says, his rent and costs have gone up, but so has business, so the doors stay open. But since the global outbreak of the coronavirus, business is down over 75 percent.

  • Kevin Chan:

    Since January, the new year, nobody show up.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    No more school field trips?

  • Kevin Chan:

    No more field school trips, because the teacher don't want to take the responsibilities. People said the virus is from China. When you come to Chinatown, you get infected because Chinese people have it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Worse still, Chan says, is what he and other Asian Americans now face in their everyday lives. As anxiety grows over where the virus will move next, a simple cough can trigger suspicion and dirty looks.

  • Kevin Chan:

    But, sometimes, I cough because my throat is itchy and dry.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But people will look at you?

  • Kevin Chan:

    They will look at me and say, like, oh, my God.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As the virus continues to spread, people here worry, so does the uncertainty and the fear of backlash. Officials have even had to warn that the stigma is actually more dangerous than the virus itself.

    And that stigma has sparked some dangerous incidents, some documented on social media.

  • Man:

    If they're from China, I need to know.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Like this hotel manager in Indiana.

  • Man:

    Because why?

  • Man:

    Because there's a coronavirus going around, and anyone from China, I am told, has to be picked up and quarantined for two weeks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And an incident last week in London left a student from Singapore with fractures and bruises in what police are calling a racially aggravated assault.

    The backlash has in turn led to its own backlash to battle the stigma. In Milan, Italy, where the outbreak has been particularly fierce, a mural reads — quote — "There is an epidemic of ignorance spreading around. We should protect ourselves."

    And on the social media platform TikTok, some Asian teens are taking the racism they're facing and turning it on its head. Last week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency for the entire city to try to get ahead of an expected surge of new cases.

  • London Breed:

    We have to be prepared before it happens, so that, if there is a surge, you know, we have the equipment, we have the protective equipment for our employees, we have the systems, the places, the things that we need in order to protect public health in this city.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    One place in the city that's already been coping with coronavirus and the fear and stigma that come with it is the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center.

  • Dr. Maria Raven:

    We have to really understand that a virus is a virus. It's agnostic to who you are. It will infect you no matter what your background is.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Maria Raven is the chief of emergency medicine. The hospital has cared for three confirmed coronavirus cases already, and on this day, was monitoring another suspected case in isolation. Raven says there's still a lot to learn about the virus.

  • Dr. Maria Raven:

    So, we don't know exactly how it's transmitted. We don't know exactly how infectious it is, and we don't know exactly how severe the course of illness will be overall for our population.

    Individuals with suspicious symptoms are brought to triage. And if they have a cough or any other respiratory symptoms or a fever, they are masked, and they are put in a private room, and they're put on respiratory and contact isolation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are 46 rooms set aside that can be turned into isolation facilities, requiring a higher level of protection for health care providers, and limiting the number of people who go in or out.

    Rebecca Alvino works in infection prevention here.

  • Rebecca Alvino:

    As there's information still emerging about coronavirus, we are taking maximum protection for our patients by housing them in these rooms that are specifically designed for those airborne transmits.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meaning, if someone comes in and has all the symptoms that you're looking for, you're going to protectively put them in this room until you run a test and know for sure?

  • Rebecca Alvino:

    Right. Right, exactly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The guiding principle is hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Though the majority of coronavirus cases appear to be mild, federal guidelines require specific criteria before someone is even tested.

    And test results, routed through the CDC, could take days to receive.

    Because of the way the process was, are you worried that confirmed cases may have slipped through the cracks?

  • Dr. Maria Raven:

    Yes, I am.

    What I will say is, I'm not worried that serious confirmed cases have slipped through the cracks. But I think we are missing — we are missing some cases, absolutely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mayor Breed says the city has finally received kits from the federal government to conduct their own testing, meaning results in just a day or two.

    So far, they have received enough for 125 patients.

    Have you have been getting the support you need? What else would you like the federal government to do?

  • London Breed:

    Well, we, of course, want more testing kits. We want more resources. We want more protective equipment for employees.

    We are not taking any chances here in San Francisco. And our goal is to do everything that we can, regardless of what the response is. But we desperately need support and assistance from our federal government.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For Kevin Chan in Chinatown, worried about his business and his community, his message is clear:

  • Kevin Chan:

    I want to tell the people that, fight the virus, not the people. OK?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And just like the fight against coronavirus, the battle against stigma is still in its early stages.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in San Francisco.

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