In the wake of a pandemic, everyone panics. Aggression, terror, fear and loathing spread as everyone rushes to protect themselves from an invisible bogeyman, sparing no mercy or altruism for others doing the same. Supermarkets become dog-eat-dog worlds where customers become gladiators over packages of hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Everybody looks for a comforting scapegoat: someone, something, or somewhere to blame. While mass media and gossip propagate the spread of misinformation, quarantine and isolation fail to nullify the civil and economic collapse of population.
But at the heart of the coronavirus outbreak, something much more dangerous than COVID-19 flourishes—discrimination.
At the end of December 2019, Chinese researchers reported several cases of what turned out to be COVID-19 (also known as SARS-CoV-2). Initial epidemiology reports linked the outbreak to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market located in China’s Wuhan Province. The virus has zoonotic origins—it originates from spreading from animals to humans, usually through cross-contamination (bubonic plague and swine flu are two infamous zoonotic diseases).
Unfortunately, given the highly infective nature of the virus, the damage was already done by the time authorities noticed. Carriers of the virus flew back to their home countries or infected other hosts on the mainland.
The name COVID-19 was coined by the World Health Organization and stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019. The WHO, given its worldwide authority, avoids linking the titles of diseases and pandemics to specific ethnic groups or regions to prevent stigmatizing those groups or regions.
Panic and fearmongering surround pandemics, and discrimination is a massive contributor to that fearmongering. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was responsible for much homophobia, partially due to its original horrifying name—the “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” disease, or GRID for short.
Initial reports on COVID-19 referred to it as the “Wuhan virus,” which not only is viciously incorrect given the worldwide reach of the virus, but also incredibly harmful to Chinese and East/Southeast-Asian people. Discrimination and anti-Asian sentiment spread like wildfire, appearing especially prominent in European countries as well as the United States, Canada, and Australia (three of the most predominantly-white countries outside of Europe).
It doesn’t help that the U.S. government is helping to propagate and spread this xenophobia. The Trump Administration has willingly fostered xenophobia over the last three years and continues to do so, especially in the recent weeks and days. Republican party house minority leader Kevin McCarthy mislabeled COVID-19 as the “Chinese coronavirus,” with secretary of state Mike Pompeo using the much more common but still incorrect “Wuhan coronavirus.”
President Donald Trump himself called it a “foreign virus” during the March 11 live Oval Office speech on the pandemic then deflected blame onto the European Union for “failing to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China.”
These types of racial microaggressions only help to fuel the virus that is racism. The origin of the virus doesn’t matter, as the outcome of the pandemic remains the same. As it stands, China is doing a much better job at quarantining and isolating the virus than the U.S. or almost any other country in the world does.
One could say that the current situation would be much worse if the virus had originated in the U.S. due to the government’s massive ineptitude at handling the situation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reportedly detaining illegal immigrants at hospitals even amid the pandemic. The Federal Reserve chose to inject a whopping $1.5 trillion into the stock market rather than investing in widespread coronavirus testing—which would cost much less.
It is clear that Trump and the U.S. government are prioritizing bailing out their wallets and targeting marginalized people over protecting the safety of not only their nation but also the entire world.
How are people being affected by the discrimination perpetuated by the pandemic? Asian-Americans have been hit particularly hard—Business Insider reported that New York’s Chinatown businesses are losing up to 50% of their business. Stock images of Asian citizens wearing face masks have become the commonly-used header images for articles covering new cases.
The NY Post came under heavy fire for using an image of an Asian man walking through Queens as the header for an article about a woman who had flown back to Manhattan from Iran. An Asian man on a Brooklyn subway was sprayed with Febreze by another man who aggressively screamed and cursed at him. Suffice to say that, in the midst of the pandemic, people are not acting with any sense of rationality or kindness.
Just two weeks ago, the U.S. had enough cases you could count them a few pairs of hands. Today, there are over a thousand. In the next month, tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands will have been infected with COVID-19. This is not a foreign virus or a regional virus. Italy has reported tens of thousands of cases themselves and have easily had one of the most disastrously high fatality rates out of any country themselves, but do people avoid pizzerias and Italian restaurants?
The coronavirus has succeeded in weeding out the worst in people, bringing to light hatred, racism, discrimination, fear and selfishness. In this time of great danger and unsureness, we must remain kind to others. Even if you are “healthy” and “safe,” remember that there are others out there who aren’t as well-equipped to handle this disease. Whether it’s age, immunocompromisation, asthma or lack of healthcare availability, not everyone is fortunate enough to get the help they need.