SAN FRANCISCO — As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, Russell Jeung follows each development with concern.
Jeung, chairman of Asian-American Studies at San Francisco State University, applauds the various measures undertaken to quell the virus by everyone from airlines to the World Health Organization.
But he also cautions that one unhelpful reaction to the China-originating virus — racist reactions towards the Chinese and sometimes anyone merely Asian-looking — just adds hatred to hysteria.
"If you look at social media and some of the news, it's fear of the 'Yellow Peril' all over again," says Jeung, referring to a term that gained traction after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. "'Coughing while Asian' is like 'driving while black,' something you get stereotyped for."
Although San Francisco's Asian-American history dates back to the Gold Rush of the 1850s, Jeung says since the coronavirus scare hit U.S. shores he has seen non-Asians move away from Asian-Americans who are coughing or wearing masks. "The masks are there out of courtesy, but instead they're viewed in other ways," he says.
Often the reactions are more hurtful than mere shunning. Fear of the coronavirus around the world has so far led to everything from anti-Chinese signs at businesses to misrepresented videos.
South Korean restaurant owners have displayed "No Chinese allowed" signs and Japanese Twitter users made the hashtag #ChineseDontComeToJapan trend. In Singapore, more than 125,000 people have signed a petition urging the government to ban Chinese nationals from entering the city-state.
One social media post that has gone viral speculates on the source of the virus and features a 2016 video of Chinese vlogger Wang Mengyun eating a bat soup in Palau, a nation in Oceania.
The post featured an infographic listing a range of expected reactions to the virus, including anxiety, worry and panic. But it noted that another common reaction could be "xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about those feelings."
UC Berkeley officials soon amended the infographic and apologized for "any misunderstanding."
Some media influencers also are fanning the flames. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, whose show on Premiere Networks is heard by 27 million people weekly, said Monday that the virus comes from the "ChiComs," a slur referencing the Chinese communist government.
"I don’t see where we’ve put any ban on Chinese passengers being permitted into the country," Limbaugh said. "This is a serious thing that could be brewing out there."
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And in France, the newspaper Le Courier Picard featured a front page Sunday with an Asian woman wearing a mask and the headline "Yellow Alert." The color referencing Asian skin tones drew immediate condemnation from French Asians — who started the hashtag #IAmNotaVirus — and an apology from the publication.
The health scare that started in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, overwhelmed local officials in China's Hubei province, as victims suddenly developed pneumonia without clear causes and for which vaccines were not proving effective.
On Monday, patients arrived at Wuhan's Huoshenshan Hospital, the 1,000-bed treatment center constructed in just 10 days to help battle the outbreak. The death toll in China has risen to 361, with more than 17,200 people infected. Outside of China, there have been 151 confirmed cases in 23 countries, and one death in the Philippines.
Based on the latest figures, the coronavirus fatality rate is roughly 2%. That compares to a fatality rate of the 9.6% for the 2002 SARS health scare.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said last week that "this is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumors. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma."
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Some observers note that the current administration's hardline stance against immigrants may exacerbate racist incidents until the virus threat abates.
"The headlines have framed the coronavirus as an invasion into our country, and it surfaces the historical xenophobia and perpetual foreigner stereotype for Asian-Americans once again," says Aarti Kohli, executive director at Asian Law Caucus, a civil rights organization focused on Asian Pacific communities.
Kohli says a Filipino staffer with a cold "got weird looks" while at a Los Angeles area airport early this week.
"She isolated herself at a cafe to avoid the feeling of being targeted," says Kohli. "It's a problem when a whole population is being discriminated and being treated as a threat."
That sentiment has deep roots, dating back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which grew out a desire to block cheap Chinese labor that had in fact been critical to many Western projects, including the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.
More recently, officials issued travel restrictions for the 2003 outbreak of SARS, a viral respiratory illness that sickened 8,096 people worldwide, eight of whom lived in the U.S..
"The danger here is that more extreme measures are taken," says historian Jeung, recalling past health scares in the early 1900s that caused San Francisco's Chinatown to be quarantined and Honolulu's Chinatown to be burned to the ground.
"The irony of the Hawaiian reaction was that the bubonic plague was caused by rats, so burning down the Chinatown only meant that the rats left and infected other non-Chinese neighborhoods," says Jeung. "This is not an Asian-American problem so much as it is an other people's problem with Asian-Americans. This coupling of xenophobia with health scares needs to get uncoupled."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus spreads anti-Chinese racism, xenophobia concerns