The Wuhan coronavirus has dominated the news in recent weeks. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global health emergency, and the U.S. recently announced it would temporarily deny entry to foreign nationals who were deemed capable of posing the risk of transmitting the virus.
But equally sinister is the onslaught of xenophobic sentiment against Chinese individuals. In the wake of the virus’ outbreak, blame and active racism towards the Chinese government and population have been recurrent themes, the result being a growing resentment and social stigma against East Asians.
With the existence of loud and competing news outlets, as well as social media, fear-mongering, racial stereotyping and misinformation have been promulgated during this time of public emergency. This allows those who might have harbored preexisting prejudice towards various groups — particularly racial and ethnic groups from East Asia — to further spread racism and xenophobic sentiment.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen East Asians scapegoated on a global platform for the spread of a disease. The term “Yellow Peril” was coined in the 19th century, a racist metaphor that targeted East Asians in Western nations. The phrase embodies severe anti-Asian xenophobia and sensationalist stereotypes, promoting the idea that people from East Asia are a threat to the Western world.
In the U.S. specifically, government and pop culture propaganda used this image to fuel racist portrayals of Chinese people as uncivilized and unclean members of society. In 1882, under the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants were banned for 61 years, underscoring the fears and stigma that have plagued immigrant communities across our nation. Lately, the acceleration of the coronavirus has echoed the long history of anti-Chinese racism in the West.
Evidence of this racist and xenophobic backlash against East Asians has manifested itself in tasteless online jokes and headlines, and people acting overtly racist in public. But these grains of racism — already potent in the harm they cause — are only the foundations for escalated, more dangerous forms of xenophobia that could evolve into extended immigration bans and societal danger for migrants living outside of the East Asian diaspora.
There is a fine line between heeding the warnings of government and health authorities and giving in to the global panic and discrimination against East Asians. This is a distinction of which we must be acutely aware and proactive about maintaining.
Don't let fear of the virus taint your image of the people suffering from it. Be open, be gracious. Be human, be supportive and don’t fall into the trap of xenophobia that vulnerability so often engenders.