• Alicia Wang

COVID-19 and Chinese Stigmatism

Updated: May 28, 2020

April 27, 2020 ⋅ 3:30 P.M ⋅ Alicia Wang ⋅ Editor: Guadalupe Sandoval ⋅

“I’m just coughing a bit and I don’t want to cough on others.” I couldn’t believe that I was forced to justify myself to complete strangers for a personal choice simply because I was Asian and chose to wear an ear loop mask for health reasons. As I walked through the hallways, I couldn’t help but observe as people granted me wary stares and considerably moved out of my way. Of course, the timing of my sickness had to line up with the breakout of the famous pandemic, Coronavirus, or now known as COVID-19. During the days that I had to keep my mask on to avoid coughing on others, I’ve never experienced this level of disgust directed towards me because of my identity. However, that was not the only incident regarding a lack of cultural awareness that I, and probably many others, had to deal with in the midst of this pandemic. While I was walking in Westwood with my roomies, we passed by a group of people eating outside on the patio who then proceeded to holler at us, “Hey they’re Chinese! Coronavirus!” (For the record, I’m part Burmese and Chinese. My roomies were Vietnamese and Korean.) The racial stereotyping towards Chinese people has homogenized all Asians and consequently divided the Asian community, nobody wants to be associated with a disease that society fears. However, my point still stands: racism towards Asians, and specifically Chinese people, has escalated further with the outbreak of COVID-19. 

COVID-19 belongs to a strain of previously known viruses that causes a range of diseases such as the common cold to more serious diseases like Middle East Respiratory syndrome. However, the most recent line of this virus was not seen in humans before. In addition, the virus is zoological, meaning it spread from animals to humans. But, contrary to public belief, there has not been a concrete identified source of disease in Wuhan. To straighten other matters out, here are some logistics about COVID-19. As of February 23rd, the United States only had 15 cases (and counting) of confirmed COVID-19 in comparison to the 76,000+ cases in China. These statistics clearly do not match the way that people have reacted towards the disease in the United States. Fear of COVID-19 has spurred racism and a general fear of going out in public. The way that the media has portrayed the outbreak has skewed people’s judgement towards the community’s health, and has led the public to think that common symptoms like coughing could possibly mean that they have COVID-19. Headlines like “You deserve the coronavirus: Chinese people in UK abused over outbreak”, “China is the real sick man of Asia”, and more outline the common reactions of the public towards the situation. 

Although COVID-19 fuels modern forms of racism toward Chinese people in America, mistreatment toward the Chinese is definitely not new. At one point, discrimination against Chinese people was even implemented and supported by the American government in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This act was the first act that banned immigration from a specific ethnic group and was a catalyst in prompting feelings of xenophobia in the United States, especially towards the Chinese. Now these prejudiced fears have resurfaced once again with the Coronavirus. The Chinese Exclusion Act was followed by the Geary Act, which extended the previous act to maintain “white purity.” With the addition of the Geary Act, Chinese people were required to bring special documentation, which was already hard enough for them due to language barriers and a lack of access for proper legal help. These two acts show how governmental policies also have an effect on the way minorities are viewed as a whole, and this biased view towards minorities leaves them as a big target of oppression. The mistreatment towards minorities is not on an individual level, but on a political one as well.

Oppression towards minorities encompasses one of the modern consequences for the racialization of COVID-19. Fear of COVID-19 has led to the marginalization of a specific group of people, in this case the Chinese, resulting in decreased care and treatment towards them. In fact, many Chinese establishments have suffered due to the virus. Fear of catching the disease had many businesses quickly plummeting. Less and less people frequent places like Chinatown, and other Chinese restaurants. Although losing business in of itself is a normal event, individuals of the establishment each suffer in their own way whether or not they have COVID-19. More specifically, dwindling businesses cause workers to lose income which, in turn, can result in not being able to afford proper healthcare. Not being able to afford basic healthcare can proliferate and exacerbate the health effects of COVID-19, such as not being able to get proper testing.     

Social determinants such as racism have a big impact on the overall health of a person and their community. For Chinese people, racial profiling has historically labeled them as “dirty” and “uneducated” for their eating and living habits. However, these remarks stem from the history of Chinese immigrants and their struggles as low income members of society. When Chinese immigrants first came to this country, they had to live in cramped spaces. The constant racism they faced prevented them from getting proper educational resources, stable job opportunities, and made it difficult to gain the privilege of having the means to properly raise a family. These systemic racialized oppressions do not only apply to Chinese people, but also many other minorities who face racism and oppression in the healthcare system. 

Overall, the COVID-19 situation is more than just an illness. Probably right as this paper gets published, there would be many other novel responses to COVID-19. However, oppression and mistreatment towards minorities without proper knowledge has always existed, and affects their health as a whole. It is important to approach the future situations with an open mindset and realize that COVID-19 is not limited to Chinese, and that treating others with respect can improve the overall health of a population. 


About the Author

Alicia Wang is an undergraduate student at University of California - Los Angeles.

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