COVID-19 and the Rise of Discrimination Against Asian-Americans

The rapid global spread of COVID-19 and the drastic lifestyle changes it has forced upon many Americans has resulted in widespread increases in personal distress. At the same time, fear and anxiety have also been growing amid the heightened racial tensions, attacks, and micro-aggressions against Asian-Americans. An estimated 21 million Americans are of Asian descent.

Historically, vulnerable groups of people or entire nationalities have been stigmatized and negatively associated with pandemics. Most notably, Jews were widely persecuted and blamed for the bubonic plague that killed a third of Europe’s population in the 14th Century. The great flu pandemic of 1918-19 that killed 850,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide, and whose origin is debated, was named the Spanish flu only because World War I censorship eliminated mentioning it in the media early in its outbreak in combatant countries – but not in neutral Spain. More recently Haitians, then gay men were blamed for the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. As it is believed that the origin of COVID-19 started with the spread of the coronavirus from animals to humans in “wet markets” within Wuhan, China, American political leadership has reinforced stigmatization and hate crimes towards Asian Americans through exclusionary policies and racially-charged rhetoric.

Racism towards Asian-Americans is not a new topic. Dating back to the 1700s when Asians first arrived in America to present day, Asian-Americans have been faced with constant marginalization, verbal attacks, and micro-aggressions rooted in racism and xenophobia. From the use and exploitation of Asian immigrants during the California Gold Rush in the 1840s to the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans (many of whom were U.S. citizens) in concentration amps in the 1940s, Asian-Americans have dealt with a system embedded with racially motivated discriminatory policies. This in turn, has fostered resentment, racist attitudes, and discrimination against Asian communities, and immigrants in general, throughout American history.

Despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) official name for COVID-19 or their advocacy for restraint from using cultural references or geographic locations in relation to disease names, President Trump and numerous other government officials and politicians have publicly referred to the virus with terms such as the “Chinese Virus,” “China Virus,” “Wuhan Virus,” and the “Kung Flu.” They have also made multiple public statements using derogatory language essentially “blaming” China for the spread of COVID-19 outside of China and in the U.S. Many have argued that the use of such terminology is xenophobic and increases the risks of hate crime against Asian-Americans through the promotion of stereotypes, bias, and exclusion. Additionally, linguists have established that using the adjective “Chinese” in the term “Chinese Virus” associates the virus with a specific ethnicity, which is highly inaccurate and dangerous. With racial harassment and targeting towards the Asian-American community having already been on the rise even before the President’s remarks, it clear that such rhetoric has failed to serve the community and reinforced simmering racist attitudes and behaviors against Asians.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) on hate crime data, 47.6% of Asian victims fail to report hate crimes to the police. With such inconsistencies in the level of reporting, it is unclear how severe the prevalence is of anti-Asian hate crimes. As 2020 data from NCVS regarding hate crime statistics is set to be released late 2021, researchers will be able to evaluate the level of increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and assess the level of changes in reporting. This will also help determine victims’ comfort levels in seeking police help.

Although much damage has already been done by the current administration blaming, the question arises as to how we can prevent further spreading of racist attitudes, beliefs, and micro-aggressions towards the Asian community. How can we create an environment that promotes healing instead of finger-pointing to create scapegoats for our current situation? How can we learn from historical events and work to prevent racialized fear in future situations? The current pandemic that has pushed us to a “new normal” is a matter of public health, not one of racial issues. Although the impact of labeling COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” may have long-lasting effects on emotional and mental health of Asian-Americans, it is critical that every organization within our country – including employers – confronts these acts of discrimination in order to better protect vulnerable populations.

About the Author

Yeji Jang, MSW Intern, is a graduate intern at Espyr, working in the Network and Provider Relations Department and with Espyr’s Chief Clinical Officer.  A graduate of the University of Georgia with a B.S. in Psychology, and having worked with immigrant populations, she is currently finishing her last semester at Indiana University’s Graduate School of Social Work. After graduation, Yeji will pursue the goal of becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), and then wants to practice clinical social work in a behavioral health setting.


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