“Sold out of masks” — a hastily written message on a piece of paper taped to the pharmacy window. This is the sign I was faced with when I ventured into a CVS on Newbury street just a few weeks ago. This week, Sony entertainment company pulled out of the PAX conference that’s set to take place here, citing concerns over the threat of the coronavirus.
The fear of coronavirus has infected Boston. With one confirmed case at UMass Boston, the threat is substantiated, but to allow our fear to degrade into xenophobia and racism serves only to heighten the impact of the pandemic. I’m not saying we have nothing to fear in terms of the threat of infection, but rather this isn’t the fear we should be focusing on. Another reality is that in 47 states, influenza remains a more significant threat as activity is classified as widespread with total infections this season alone being estimated near 14,000. Keeping all this in mind, we should be focusing on the fear that Asian racial and ethnic groups are feeling right now and what we can do collectively to alleviate that. Doctor’s Orders: conceptualize in different terms.
The H1N1, “swine flu” epidemic originated in the United States, but it was never referred to in headlines as American. With Coronavirus, nearly every headline references Wuhan or China; in most cases, it wasn’t just “Coronavirus”, it was “Wuhan Coronavirus”. Marie Myung-Ok Lee sums it up best, “if it started in a country that Americans have stereotypes towards, naming it after that region—as with Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Asian Flu, and now, Wuhan Coronavirus—is a great way to play on xenophobic and racist tropes.” Seemingly innocuous headlines have festered into a worldwide epidemic of fear, steeped in inherent racism.
The WHO has even drafted a new name for the disease, COVID-19, in an attempt to distance the virus from its Chinese origin. This culminates in what Amnesty International has acknowledged as the harmful effects of discrimination and xenophobia in response to the virus. Such responses only present more challenges to dealing with the epidemic as countries around the world retreat to isolationism behavior. Protective travel bans and quarantines are one thing, but the real root issue is a lack of funding to the World Health Organization. Until countries prioritize the WHO in addition to their own national organizations, we will continue to experience pandemics as the natural course of our globalized world.
The coronavirus may be novel, but this trend of fear mongering is not. Similar responses were evident with the 2014 Ebola outbreak. When one case was confirmed in the United States, questions of nationality of the patient were immediately raised. Conservative twitter personalities coined #Obola, as an attack on the heritage of President Obama and his more open immigration policies. These responses illustrate the wrong, unhealthy, and unproductive way to react. When diseases are conceptualized in terms of their region of origin or in terms of the race of the majority of the infected, we’ve already lost. It shifts the focus away from the biological nature of the virus, which is what must be solved in order to eradicate it.
The microorganisms of xenophobia and fear mongering have infected Boston and the symptoms are evident. Business is slow in Chinatown, masks are sold out, and incidents of racial slurs and comments are on the rise. The situation is so out-of-hand that Mayor Walsh and two other council members, Michelle Wu and Ed Flynn, publicly demonstrated their support and solidarity by eating lunch in Chinatown. This is the productive way to respond—with solidarity. I hope this will encourage other locals to continue to support those restaurants.
Now is the time to showcase our solidarity. Beyond supporting businesses, we can work to combat hurtful attacks as we encounter them. There’s already been multiple reports of racist incidents here in Boston; a verbal attack on the subway, and comments of "stay away Asian people" on social media are just two of several appalling examples. If you find yourself as a bystander witnessing xenophobic and/or racist actions, evaluate the situation and decide the best path forward. Intervene if you feel comfortable, document what you see and report it, offer kind words afterwards. These small actions can act as antibodies, but a single cell can’t do all the work. We have to work together as a unit to have any measurable impact.
Diseases don’t discriminate—they know no race, ethnic group, or social class. Anyone, anywhere can get infected. Now is not the time to point fingers or try to assign blame. Not only is this not productive, it actively inhibits a unified effort of eradication. Pandemics are the new reality of our globalized world. They aren’t going anywhere, so we need to learn how to prepare and adapt. The best vaccine against pandemic? The unity of the human race.