When Racism Goes Viral

Referring to COVID-19 as the "China virus" only reinforces dangerous stigmas -- just what we don't need in a time of fear.


courtesy of Reuters

Dubbing the novel coronavirus the "China virus" holds no purpose than to divide us and stoke fear during an uncertain time.

Katie Golden, Co-Editor-In-Chief

Even before the widespread emphasis on social distancing and state-suggested quarantines, I was nervous going out in public. But it was for a very different reason than you might expect. I had read about COVID-19, and I even created a model of the spread of the virus, using the program GLEAMviz and available data at the time, so I knew about the dangers of this epidemic and its potential outcomes. However, I had also read a few articles about one of the more hidden side-effects of the virus: racism. 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read article after article about the dangerous racial bias and stereotyping that have arisen in response to this virus. A man dying from cardiac arrest because onlookers refused to give CPR for fears that he had coronavirus. A 23 year old student from Singapore beat up in the streets of London. A female student from Korea punched in the face while trying to enter a building in New York City. 

I’m Chinese, but I was adopted. I have white parents and I’ve lived in the Pittsburgh area my entire life (excluding a few months as a baby). Most of the time I even forget that I’m Asian. With all the things that go on in my life, my ethnicity is far from my most important or defining characteristics.

Since the outbreak of the virus, however, my ethnicity has been hard for me to ignore. When I walk past people in public now, I try to avoid eye contact. Whenever they pass, I hold my breath and brace myself for a cruel comment. I am afraid of people blaming me for the spread of the virus. And I am afraid of what fear makes people do. 

When I walk past people in public now, I try to avoid eye contact. Whenever they pass, I hold my breath and brace myself for a cruel comment.”

COVID-19 is said to originate from Wuhan, but Adriano Decarli, an epidemiologist at the University of Milan, said that between October and December “hundreds more people than usual had been taken to hospital with pneumonia and flu-like symptoms” in Italy. Scientists must still collect samples and get positive test results before it can be confirmed that coronavirus was already spreading in Europe, but it is a current possibility.

Throughout his speeches and announcements, Trump has been referring to this epidemic as the “China virus.” Even though the xenophobic incidents listed above are not direct results of Trump calling it such, the damage has already been done and his statements support the people who committed those acts. 

This kind of stigma has happened in the past, perhaps the best-known example occurring during the AIDS crisis in the 80s. Because of a group of diagnoses in June of 1982, the disease was originally called gay-related immune deficiency (GRID). The description furthered the already unfair bias and treatment of the LGBTQ+ community. Due to the lack of available information about transmission, many people, even doctors who “had abundant reason to fear contracting the strange disease and infecting their families,” avoided or kept a cautious distance from gay people.

Sound familiar? 

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement on how to name diseases in order to prevent bias and panic. Dr. Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security, said, “This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals.” This is exactly what we are seeing now. 

It is in times like these that it is most important for us to work together as a global population instead of placing blame and further dividing people.  Much like the fight against the novel coronavirus, defeating racism requires a concerted and ongoing effort, a will to never let our guard down and make the world safe for all of its inhabitants.