As Carlyn Cowen walked toward her office in Manhattan’s Chinatown on Friday morning, she saw a familiar scene: a sidewalk vendor asking a passerby if he wanted to buy a handbag.
The response, Cowen fears, is increasingly familiar as well.
“No, I don’t want coronavirus.”
“We’re certainly hearing it from our staff and community members. You hear it going on everywhere,” Cowen, chief policy and public affairs officer of the Chinese-American Planning Council in New York City, says. “Even going to work on the subway today, if someone Asian sneezed or coughed, people start backing away or covering their faces with scarves.”
The Filipinx policy worker is not alone. As news about coronavirus spreads, Asian Americans are bracing themselves for an all-too-expected side effect: discrimination.
“I do think this is having a very real impact on businesses,” Cowen adds. “It’s going to be a real impact on family businesses.”
“It’s the frustrating history going back to the 1800s talking about Chinese folks and Asians being unhealthy and carrying diseases,” Cowen says, referring to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first significant law aimed at restricting immigration to the United States.
“This is a public health issue, not an Asian immigrant issue.”
Conflating the origins of the disease with innate characteristics of people who are Asian is happening worldwide, to the point that official institutions and regions have had to issue statements addressing the behavior.
The United Nations statement follows a botched guide to coronavirus issued by the University of California at Berkeley’s health services center that was posted on Instagram Thursday, which called “fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about those feelings,” a “normal reaction” to news of the virus, before issuing an apology.
In Canada, Toronto Mayor John Tory issued a statement warning against discrimination against Chinese people.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a “public health emergency” while the U.S. State Department amped up its travel advisory for China to “Do Not Travel.”
Medical experts caution against hysteria.
“Right now the prevalence of coronavirus in the United States is exceedingly low under any circumstance,” says Jeremy Samuel Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Amanda Yee, who is Chinese American and works in publishing in New York, says she “pushes back” on the “vitriol” she sees online.
“It just seemed like the coronavirus panic reanimated these very old stereotypes about Chinese people as dirty, diseased and barbaric. That they torture animals and eat vermin,” Yee says.
Noah Cho, a teacher and writer in the Bay Area, hasn’t seen or experienced overt racism since coronavirus emerged, but he’s also bracing for an echo of his experience as a student at University of California at Irvine during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003, which affected eight people in the U.S.
“White kids on campus would make comments and act really disgustingly,” Cho, who is half-Korean and half-white, says, noting that this was the case despite the prevalent Asian population on campus.
“If people had a cold had they would make comments, like, ‘Don’t give me SARS!’” Cho continues. “I remember getting looks from people in the grocery stores, even getting food at the dining hall — people would give me looks and move away.”
Today, he anticipates the reaction being even worse, thanks to social media and the Internet.
“Disinformation could spread” so quickly, he says.