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COVID-19 and Anti-Asian Racism

  • May 31, 2020
  • Diverse populations, Patients and Families

In mid-March at a Sam’s Club in Texas, a man stabbed an Asian American family, including a 2-year-old and a 6-year old, because he thought they were Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus. An FBI analysis listed the incident as a hate crime and warned of an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans. As America opens back up and disinformation about the pandemic continues to rise, an increase in anti-Asian activity is likely.

For Asian Americans, including myself, a run to the grocery store might mean additional risks under the COVID-19 pandemic like physical and verbal assaults. During stay-at-home orders, there were more than 1,700 anti-Asian incidents reported to the Stop AAPI Hate online tracker, managed by several Asian American interest organizations. Civil rights violations, such as workplace discrimination, accounted for 9.2% of the cases. Our most vulnerable—children and the elderly—made up 12.2% of the violation reports.

Health care workers are not immune to this threat. The rise in reported discrimination against Asian American health care workers leaves Asian Americans, who represent 6% of the U.S. population but 18% of the country’s physicians and 10% of its nurse practitioners, in a painful position. While they risk their own personal health on the frontlines of the response to the pandemic, Asian American health care workers are asked, “Where are you from?” and some patients have asked that somebody “not from China” take care of them.

As people flock online, the viral spread of hate and disinformation worsens the impact of the pandemic. Researchers at the Network Contagion Research Institute, an independent organization that tracks misinformation and hate across social media channels, reported on the spread of hate online toward Asians and Asian Americans along with the pandemic. They found a rise in derogatory terms for Chinese people and conspiracy theories surrounding Asian people and coronavirus. As reported on CNN, Alex Goldenberg, an analyst at the institute and one of the study authors, said: "We are seeing instances where this Asian conspiracy is seeping into the mainstream, and an outgrowth of that could very well be violence."

Disinformation can also spread within the Asian community, which is made up of people from numerous ethnic backgrounds. An Asian American friend of mine referred to the virus as the “Chinese virus,” because “that’s what the president called it.” He pointed to his local Asian-language newspaper that states “COVID-19” stands for “Chinese-Origin Virus Infectious Disease 19,” and a few articles with conspiracy theories that the Chinese produced the virus to bring down the global economy. Fueled by his own fear and anxiety about his financial situation due to stay-at-home orders, he referenced Chinese people as the cause of his stress. I explained to him that the scientific name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2 and the illness it causes is COVID-19; CO' stands for corona, 'VI' for virus, 'D' for disease, and ’19 for 2019, the year of the outbreak. He was appalled by the disinformation from his trusted newspaper that contributed to his own unintentional anti-Chinese bias.

Each of us should correct remarks with potential to perpetuate bias and hate. Many people do not understand the implications of their words or are simply misinformed. As schools open back up, parents and educators, regardless of their ethnic background, have a responsibility to educate their children and students on what to do if they witness, or are subjected to, anti-Asian discrimination or bullying. If you or your family are subjected to any anti-Asian activity, please report it to the authorities and to Stop AAPI Hate.

Additionally, we can work with our employers, community leaders, and elected leaders, as well as our neighbors, friends, and colleagues, to voice opposition to racial bias, prejudice, and discrimination. Resolutions to condemn all forms of anti-Asian sentiment were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Both H. Res. 908 and S. Res. 580 call on law enforcement at all levels to investigate and track all credible reports of hate crimes, incidents, and threats against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Recently, the American Psychiatric Association joined nearly 50 other professional scientific organizations in a letter to Congress (pdf) condemning such acts against these communities and offering support to people of Asian ancestry.

Together, we can mitigate this outbreak of disinformation, which has fostered dehumanizing behavior including hatred and violence and has spread ignorance regarding social responsibility, including physical distancing and hand hygiene.

In this period of global vulnerability, while nations collaborate to produce a vaccine to save lives, let us insist that our elected leaders join together not only to stop disinformation that perpetuates violence against Asians, but also to enact legislation that helps maintain our safety and support our diverse communities. History teaches us that neither scapegoating nor misdirected blame is effective in addressing any of society’s challenges — and we can be confident that such shortsighted, narrow-minded behaviors will not help us combat this pandemic both in the present and in the future.

By Lan Chi “Krysti” Vo, M.D.,
APA Asian American Caucus,
Medical Director of Telehealth,
Dept. of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences,
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia,
President,Vo Care


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