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The “Chinese Virus” Hurts More Than Just the Social Status of Asian Americans

Natalie Yim, BS ’24 Engineering and Biochemistry

HHS Competencies: Social and Structural Proficiency; Attention and Observation

“This is America, we don’t wear masks here.” “You’re not welcome here.” “Go back to your country” (HMS Review). Those are just a few of the (less vulgar) defamations Asian-Americans have been scolded with, by their fellow American citizens, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (A3PCON), over 1,100 incidents of “verbal harassment, shunning, and physical assault” towards Asain Americans occurred between March 19 and April 2 (just a two week period) (Ho). And these are only the reported cases, from those who knew about the A3PCON incident report form. This nationwide harassment, towards Americans by Americans, reached a high in the emerging days of the pandemic. And, although we have grown accustomed to, and even accepted, the astronomical changes COVID-19 has brought to our lives, attacks on Asian-Americans continue to unfold, more than nine months after the first COVID-19 case in the United States. Xenophobia towards Asian Americans amidst this pandemic has not only distracted people from facing COVID-19 head-on but also compromised the health of countless Asian Americans.

            President Trump’s language does nothing but fuel the fire. Any mildly informed person has heard (or seen on Twitter) Trump refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus,” placing the blame on those of Asian descent. Although the World Health Organization has specific requirements when titling diseases, in order to “minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups,” (thus the name COVID-19), Trump continues to villainize China and disrespect the WHO’s guidelines for referring to infectious diseases (Ho). As recently as the September 29th presidential debate, he uses deliberate terminology in order to ultimately put targets on the backs of Chinese (and all other Asian) Americans, driving xenophobia in the United States. And although the pandemic brings in a fresh wave of racist actions and ideas, it is nothing new to Asian Americans.

Underlying racism has always existed in America—Trump’s language and influence has simply dusted off these old ideas and brought them into the COVID-19 spotlight (Chiu). This type of lurking racism can shine through in the instance of an emergency or epidemic. A past example includes the avoidance of Mexican restaurants during the 2009 H1N1 epidemic, where Mexican-Americans were strongly discriminated against and thought to carry virus (Staff). Now, Asian Americans are experiencing similar injustices.

Anti-Asian sentiment has been experienced by Asian American patients and healthcare workers even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Racist microaggressions have undoubtedly been made within clinical settings, whether directed at Asian American healthcare professionals by patients, or toward an Asian American patient by a doctor or nurse. Microaggressions include assumptions made about the victim or expressions of prejudice toward the victim (Ho). For example, a physician assumes that a Hispanic patient requires an interpreter, or that an Asian patient resides in a foreign country, rather than asking them of their recent travels and exposure history. These microaggressions can be extremely offensive, and in the wake of COVID-19’s appearance in the US, these comments are becoming commonplace in clinics and hospitals.

            The extreme xenophobia Asian Americans experience in the healthcare world can have a considerable impact on people’s health and well-beings. It is not uncommon for Asian American patients to skip a doctor’s appointment or avoid medical attention in order to abstain from torments due to race, which often occur in hospitals and clinics. Studies show that these traumatizing experiences in the healthcare environment correlate with poor health outcomes, such as increased rates of heart attacks (Review). During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no secret that these microaggressions and mistreatments are at an all-time high, due to false assumptions (largely based on the language used by Trump) that China is to blame for the pandemic as a whole. This evidently causes a dilemma: Asian American patients are even less inclined than usual to seek medical care, yet we are in the middle of a rapidly-spreading, fatal disease outbreak. It presents patients with a difficult decision: risk humiliation and microaggressions at the hospital/clinic, which can be all-around detrimental to one’s health, or sit back and pray that the virus doesn’t take too much of a toll on their body (Review). Either choice has its cons.

            But Asian Americans should not have to make that choice when it comes to their health. Xenophobia is its own corrosive force in this pandemic, and if America is to come out of this public health nightmare as successfully as possible, then we must address the toxic misrepresentations of Asian Americans that have been generated in this country. It is essential that we face this discrimination head-on, starting with the attitudes of doctors and nurses in practice. If we do nothing, the health of Asian Americans will be compromised not only now, but for years to come. We cannot let the “Chinese Virus” become their legacy.

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