How Racism Against Asians Exploded In The Pandemic

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Across the US, people having been taking to the streets to protest hate crimes against Asian people.  

In New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, anti-racism advocates have been fighting back and demanding safety in their communities.  

They’re fighting back against hate crimes like this: the brutal attack that left 84-year-old Vicha Ratapakdee dying on the sidewalk in his San Francisco neighbourhood in January 

Ratanapakdee was Thai and he was targeted because of his race.  

The attack against him was a tragic escalation in the violence and aggression against East-Asian people that’s been happening throughout the pandemic.  

These attacks have been happening around the world and they’ve been propelled by xenophobic rhetoric that’s cropping up in media and politics. 

But this situation was also predictable because history has proved time and time again that racism boils to the surface during disease outbreak.  

And tackling that kind of predictable racism could have been a priority for governments from the start. 

Horrifying Racism During Covid 

On March 12th 2020 the World Health Organisation declared that Covid was a global pandemic.  

But even two months earlier than that, in January, Asian people were already reporting that they were experiencing hostile behaviour because of their race.  

A Gold Coast Surgeon said that a patient refused to shake her hand, one woman wrote a column about being told to stay home by strangers and fake messages from health departments telling people to avoid Chinese communities were circulating online.  

For months, that hostility continued to escalate 

As Covid cases continued to rise, so too did the amount of physical and verbal assaults that Asian people were reporting.  

One woman in Sydney reported that she was threatened with a knife and told to “go eat a bat”.  

For people of East-Asian descent in Australia, it’s been really a scary time. 

Maggie Zhou (writer and podcast host)“We had some horrible experiences here in Melbourne. We would hear about girls – other young Chinese girls – being yelled at and spat on in the street.” 

In the past year, nearly 1 in 5 Chinese Australians have been physically threatened or attacked because of their heritage, and over 30% have been called something offensive.  

For a lot of Asian Australians, even the smallest activities, like going for a walk, have become a source of worry.  

MZ: “For me, being stuck at home all day and having that walk, yes I would look forward to it but it would definitely be a source of anxiety for me as well. It wouldn’t be something comforting, I was always on edge. I was never comforted and I would just have this pounding feeling in my chest, I could never relax and it was not nice at all.” 

Stories about this increase in racism are painful and the footage is hard to watch 

But history is full of warning signs that Covid was going to lead to this racist surge.  

The Historical Link Between Diseases And Racism  

Other disease outbreaks and disasters have been accompanied by a rise in racist sentiment and a targeting of minority groups. 

During the 1853 yellow fever epidemic in the US, immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Britain were perceived to be more vulnerable to the disease. And these immigrants became the main target of yellow fever stigmatisation. 

In the 1980s LGBITQ+ people faced a rise in violence and aggression towards them because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

And during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, even people who came from Ebola-free countries like Nigeria and Zambia became targets of stigmatisation and racism directed at African people. 

A lot of this has simply been white people looking for scapegoats when novel diseases have appeared, and finding those scapegoats in minority groups.  

Korey Pasch (Queens University): “Disasters, they magnify and exacerbate pre-existing issues. So when we try to understand why we’re trying to see this kind of uptick I think the most important thing is to try and contextualise it.” 

A History Of Stereotyping Asians 

East-Asians in particular, have borne a huge amount of this hatred and it comes from a really long history of stereotyping.  

In the mid-1800s there was a massive influx of Chinese immigration to the US. The gold rush and the promise of work on railroads let to thousands of people leaving China and heading to America.  

The vast majority of Chinese communities settled on the West Coast 

But they were met with this wave of racist anxiety about non-white immigration.  

This played out on the Australian gold fields too. 

Chinese people were quickly stereotyped as people who eat questionable food, have poor hygiene habits and carry disease.  

Those racist stereotypes have endured over time, and become magnified when something like a global pandemic comes along. 

Where Are Politicians And Media In Efforts To Minimise Racism? 

Back in 2015, the World Health Organisation tried to address this stigmatisation.  

They changed their best practices for how infectious diseases should be named. They didn’t think place names should be used in new disease names, because of the backlash people from those places could face.  

Diseases like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu or even Ebola – which is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – wouldn’t be named the same way today. 

But certain political leaders and commentators have just kind of ignored those standards and have insisted on linking Covid to its place of origin and Chinese people again and again. 

Trump has been the prime example of this and his rhetoric has emboldened – even licensed –  a lot of racist behaviour in the US.  

Here in Australia the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, helped to promote baseless rumours about Asian stockpiling behaviour at the beginning of the national lockdown.  

Certain media outlets have also contributed to racist perceptions of Chinese people throughout the pandemic, with opinion pieces published by major outlets containing racist jokes, scaremongering and xenophobic comments. 

Thomson Ch’ng (Asian Australian Alliance): “Media racism is a cancer on Australian multiculturalism. It is actually creating disharmony and negative community sentiments and it’s not doing any help for the country.” 

What Now? 

So, what needs to happen to fight this kind of racism? 

There have been some pretty amazing responses from people trying to rebuild their communities and stand up against racism.  

Campaigns fighting anti-Asian racism have exploded across social media in recent weeks as the US responds to the violence happening on their own soil.  

There have also been IRL community efforts. In fact, Maggie told me about one that she loved seeing in Melbourne.  

MZ: “A lot of Chinese restaurants – especially in Chinatown – were really targeted during this time and lost a lot of business. A lot of them closed down and there was this social media campaign which was #Iwilleatwithyou and that was a really nice and loving response saying, no I’m going to stand by these people.” 

As for the political response, well, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has condemned racist backlash against Asian Australians a few times, as have other members of his cabinet.  

But community groups like the Asian Australian Alliance say that more direct action needs to be taken. 

For a start, there really needs to be better data collection, from official bodies like state police and government anti-discrimination bodies, on where and when hate crimes are happening so trends are easier to spot. 

There also need to be targeted anti-racism interventions before violent racist attacks happen.  

TC: “Racism is not something that is new. What the pandemic has done is amplified the issue of racism in this country. If nothing is to be donewhether it is from government or the community in general, in addressing the issue of racism – and this is racism not just against Asian-Australians but in general – then the issue will always be there, that’s for sure.” 

The Takeaway 

The explosion of racism against people of East-Asian descent throughout the pandemic has been a tragic and disheartening insight into the racism that persists in our societies.  

Endemic racism rears its head during crises but this should not be the only time that governments should be paying attention to it.  

There are ways for our political leaders to address these problems before they become, well, bigger problems and to protect communities who are vulnerable to this kind of stereotyping and scapegoating in the future.