How COVID-19 Inflamed Racism towards Asian Americans


Suruchi Kunwar, Contributing Writer

Within weeks of the emergence of the novel coronavirus in China, misleading rumors about the virus—and racism—started to rapidly spread across the globe. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, which was first officially reported to the World Health Organization by Chinese authorities in Wuhan on Dec. 31, a number of accounts of racism and xenophobia had been reported and documented on social media.

This racism and xenophobia are fueled by a discourse that casts the bodies and behaviors of Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans as suspicious because of the disease’s spread. And this is the case for many international Asian students who have become targets of these attitudes.

Anna Lerr, a first-year student at Clark, said she was verbally assaulted in March, when coronavirus cases were just starting to surface in the US. A Caucasian woman marched up to her in a Walmart in Worcester and told her to stay away from her.  Lerr recalled, “I thought she was looking for something but when she made things obvious, I was surprised and upset.”

Lerr added sadly, “That encounter made me feel really uncomfortable and it really made me feel unsafe.”  She stated that she had never encountered such a situation in her life.

The harassment Lerr experienced is becoming more common for Asian Americans.  As a Vietnamese American, Susan Loun, also a freshman in college, said she was out and about shopping for groceries and was randomly harassed by a group of white men. She saw the men making faces at her and whispering behind her back. After a while, one of the men confronted her saying, “Get out of here. Go back to China. Don’t bring your virus here!”

Just a single cough or sneeze can inevitably lead to disturbing encounters. Amy Lompuh, a student from Boston University, recalled that a guy on a bus whispered about “diseased Chinese men” as she sneezed into her sleeve. When she confronted him, he said to her, “Cover your goddamn mouth.”

It doesn’t help that President Donald Trump and the GOP labelled Covid-19 as the “Chinese flu,” threatening East Asian Americans. This fits into his administration’s history of xenophobia (referring to Hispanics as “rapists” and describing certain areas as “shithole countries”), and often fits into his trend of deflecting blame — this time when outrage is directed at the government’s handling of the coronavirus.

“As the President, he should have some sense of what he is encouraging.  This is really hurting  me and my community,” said Karla Li, a Chinese international student who lives in New York.

“We can come together as a country to help out our communities,” she said. “We should not be targeting each other and making it more difficult for others in this incredibly challenging time.”