Many Asian Americans nationwide have reported discrimination due to growing fear of the novel coronavirus. (Courtesy photo)

Many Asian Americans nationwide have reported discrimination due to growing fear of the novel coronavirus. (Courtesy photo)

As new coronavirus spreads, another epidemic looms: ‘yellow peril’ racism

After an unexpected December trip to China’s Hunan province to bury her father, a Renton, Wash., woman returned home on Feb. 2. The following day, her husband told me, the woman was confronted at her door by her condo property manager. The manager told her because she had traveled to China, she should leave her home and be quarantined.

On Feb. 4, flyers appeared in the entryway of her condo credited to condo management, headlined “Virus Quarantine” and alerting residents to a possible virus infection. The flyers advised people to wear face masks and gloves near her home. The woman, whom I’m not naming because she fears further discrimination, was not sick and under no official quarantine order or restriction, her husband said. Neighbors learned of her trip and decided to take matters into their own hands.

This incident is just one of many, as rumors, misinformation and fears about the novel coronavirus have flooded social media and news worldwide. Locally, Devin Israel Cabanilla’s Asian American son was refused samples at an Issaquah Costco by a worker who expressed worry he was Chinese and had coronavirus because he was wearing a mask. The company has apologized. The Seattle Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area said businesses reported sales taking a hit the past weeks, during Lunar New Year, usually their busiest time. Other local Lunar New Year celebrations have been canceled.

Many Asian Americans nationwide have reported discrimination due to the virus. From a flood of racist comments on social media about Chinese eating habits and other stereotypes, to a woman reportedly assaulted in New York for being Asian and wearing a face mask in the subway. University of California, Berkeley — to backlash and eventual apology — even issued an advisory to students saying that xenophobia was a normal reaction to virus fears. In France, discrimination against Asian French led to the creation of the hashtag #Jenesuispasunvirus, or “I am not a virus.”

Let’s take a collective breath.

Like any new virus, the unknowns about the novel coronavirus heighten our fears. The disease has infected more than 40,000 people, nearly all in China, and killed more than 900 as of Sunday. Eleven million people in the city of Wuhan, China, are locked down for the foreseeable future.

But in the U.S., unlike the flu, which has killed at least 8,000 people so far this season to much less widespread anxiety, the coronavirus has infected 12, with no deaths thus far. One American in Wuhan has died from the coronavirus.

We can’t let our fear drive us to create a new “yellow peril” and perpetuate racist patterns of discrimination and scapegoating.

Most if not all Asian Americans I know have experienced the harm of being treated as perpetually foreign in our own country. For me and many others, one of my first experiences in realizing our family was different was having friends come to our house and be aghast at the “gross” and “disgusting” Asian food my dad would always have around. I learned then and throughout my life that to be Asian American would always mean being treated as the other.

Conjoining “foreigners” with disease has a long history in the U.S. Fears of Chinese immigrants spreading disease provided key justification to drum up support for the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The SARS outbreak in 2002 also led to widespread xenophobia and Sinophobia.

Discrimination and stigmatization don’t just have a terrible psychological and social impact on their targets, they actually can make disease outbreaks worse, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, the public health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County. Stigma makes it less likely people will seek treatment, which makes disease harder to control.

“We really don’t want that first casualty to be common sense and good judgment in the way we treat one another in our communities,” Duchin said. “We don’t want to have an outbreak of panic when we don’t even have an outbreak of disease (in Seattle) at the moment.”

To help prevent discrimination, Public Health — Seattle & King County released a poster and at an event with Asian American community leaders on Friday that said, “Viruses don’t discriminate, and neither should we.”

This outbreak is a terrible human tragedy. We should not compound and exacerbate that tragedy by adding completely preventable bias into the mix.

As health officials work to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, the rest of us have the power to stop the spread of the virus of our own making — the one of misplaced fear, distrust and discrimination.

Naomi Ishisaka is a columnist for the Seattle Times.

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