Written By: Emma Thorp
Over the past few weeks the United States has attempted to combat the relentless spread of the Coronavirus and the process is undoubtedly unsettling. Many schools, including my own, have moved their classes online, and are encouraging their students to practice social distancing by staying at home. Bars and restaurants have shut down temporarily, many Americans have been laid off, and Disney World has closed down marking that we truly have descended into a time of anarchy. Many of us are washing our hands on the hour while working our way through the entire Netflix library attempting to postpone our inevitable downfall to insanity. We are living in a time when one would assume we could all put aside our differences and try to work towards our common goal of slowing the spread of a deadly pandemic, but unfortunately it’s still 2020 America and we remain incapable of having nice things.
On March 19, the President of the United States stood up at a public Coronavirus briefing to address the country at a time of fear, stress, and confusion. During the address, an image was captured of the President’s notes wherein he clearly crossed out the word “Corona” and replaced it with the word “Chinese”. In what can only be seen as an attempt to quell the fear and uncertainty in our nation, the President took it upon himself to rename the virus the “Chinese virus” and defended it saying it wasn’t racist because COVID-19 “comes from China”.
Asian Americans have been reporting increased instances of violence and harassment since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, and while the economy in general has taken a substantial hit, reports say Chinese restaurants and businesses are suffering disproportionally. A Korean woman in Midtown Manhattan reported being punched in the jaw for not wearing a mask as men screamed “Corona” at her. Another woman on a New York Subway car was punched and kicked by a man who called her “diseased”. In February, Los Angeles authorities were forced to publicly speak about bullying and harassment directed to Asian communities as a result of fear pertaining to the Coronavirus outbreak. While this form of hatred and violence can be undoubtedly shocking, the sad reality is that the fear driving these extreme reactions, is anything but out of character.
The tactic of blaming diseases on different countries is not original to the Trump administration. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed largely on the baseless claim that Chinese people were more likely to carry diseases such as smallpox and cholera. Smallpox originated in Western Europe and cholera most likely started in India, but they were still used as reasons to discriminate against Chinese immigrants for decades. Even when Chinese immigration was banned as a result of the Exclusion Act, Americans continued to blame diseases on Chinese people in the country. When a case of the bubonic plague was discovered in Chinatown in 1900, Chinese immigrants and residents of Chinatown were immediately quarantined, but no such action was taken towards white people who had just visited Chinatown and were also likely exposed to the disease.
During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the Raegan administration clearly stated that the disease was not their utmost concern and they had no plans to fund research on it because investing federal dollars in a gay plague would only encourage homosexual behavior. The inaction of the government towards those dying of AIDS not only promoted discrimination nationwide, but it sent a false narrative that only gay men were actually capable of contracting the virus. Blaming HIV on the queer community contributed to a national level indifference to the disease, which only allowed it to become more dangerous.
Historically, using discrimination as a way to fight diseases doesn’t work. Labeling the Coronavirus as being a Chinese disease promotes violence and discrimination against Chinese Americans, but also misleads millions of non-Chinese Americans to believe they are not at risk of contracting the virus. Real people are affected by the virus but real people are also affected by hatred. There are plenty of necessary precautions we, as a country, should be taking to slow the spread of the Coronavirus, but enforcing racism, promoting violence, or tolerating discrimination, aren’t any. In the 1980s America failed at protecting citizens from an epidemic, and instead perpetuated dangerous stereotypes and watched the disease get worse. Homophobia did not cure AIDS, and racism will not cure COVID-19. Fear is far more dangerous than any pandemic, and unfortunately, it infected our country long before anybody got sick.