Understanding the boundaries between fear and hatred: East-Asians facing discrimination amid the coronavirus pandemic
With COVID-19 bursting across the globe, anti-Chinese sentiments emerged. These were particularly evident at the outbreak of the pandemic with the upsurge of reports of verbal and physical assault on the news and media. The strength of these feelings is hard to gauge. What could be the reasons behind this discrimination?
At the beginning of the pandemic, many were the Chinese and East-Asians facing discrimination. In Asia, the hashtag #ChineseDon’tCometoJapan had been trending on Twitter. Signs saying that Chinese customers were not welcome were put on the entrance of some Asian businesses.
In the US, many Chinese and East-Asians have been physically and verbally assaulted even in moments of State’s lockdown. As the executive director of the US Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council stated, “It’s disheartening to see such a high number of incidents, especially when we consider that much of the nation is sheltered-in-place. Being targeted at grocery stores, pharmacies and in their neighbourhoods adds an additional challenge for Asian Americans during this crisis. It makes basic tasks of everyday living all the more difficult.”
In Europe, a similar yet less evident trend occurred. In the Netherlands, the local Radio 10 on the 7th of February broadcasted, “Voorkomen is beter dan Chinezen” (Prevention is better than Chinese), and the radio DJ Lex Gaarhuis suggested to people not to eat Chinese food. A few days later, a 24 years old Dutch-Chinese woman was attacked by a group of young men after she asked them to stop singing the song broadcasted on the radio, which she found discriminatory.
However, following these extreme cases, there have also been responses not just from Chinese but also from local people to tackle discrimination. Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco University, has helped to set up STOP AAPI HATE, a website where Asian-Americans can report accounts of discrimination experienced. The site was meant to gather incidents linked to the coronavirus pandemic that could be used to support legislation and discrimination lawsuits to support the rights of Asian communities in the US.
As the study shows, from the 19th of March to the 3rd of April, there have been more than 1,100 reports from verbal harassment to physical assault, with the number of discrimination toward Asian-Americans remaining high even after shelter-in-place policies were implemented across the country.
In France, at the outbreak of the pandemic, the hashtag #JeNeSuisUnVirus (I am not a virus) started to circulate among French-Chinese’s Twitter. In Italy, a similar trend emerged that saw Chinese standing in the streets with a board stating, “I am not a virus. I am a human being. Free me from prejudice”. Many were the Italians that expressed their solidarity toward Chinese by hugging them.
In March the group “Audio, Video, Exprimo” (“I hear, I see, I express myself”) of Chinese people living in France published on YouTube “The Outbreak’s Memory (션،ج),” a short documentary on the discrimination faced by Asians during the outbreak of the pandemic in Europe. As stated in the description of the video, “Through our actions, we want to send a positive message to our audience and encourage them to live the current situation with hindsight and a critical mind towards the abundance of more or less relevant and genuine information from social networks. ... By documenting the reality of these people, we want to shed light on these phenomena so that we can all face the crisis we are going through together.”
In regards to these cases, it is crucial to recognize that in moments of crisis, discrimination might be led by fear and confusion rather than by hate. In an article about the discrimination faced by Chinese, Fiona Shan, a linguist and Chinese Ph.D. student of the VU, states that in moments of crisis, the individual’s awareness of the need for self-protection rises. The search for a rational explanation will lead him/her to an increase in fear toward the diverse, the “other,” which becomes the cause of the complex and inexplicable crisis. In these moments, the media plays a crucial role. During an interview, Fiona said, “think from an individual, regular public side, without going too much into detail. The news will be your main source of information and the main source to interpret behaviour. You are then easily led to believe, or to understand what the news presented to you”.
Yet, many Chinese are experiencing fear and anger due to discrimination. Talking to a VU’s Chinese Ph.D. student, who experienced some incidents while traveling with her boyfriend to Italy and Greece, she said, “you feel confused and angry. If just somebody gave us the chance to explain that we are not from Wuhan, that we do not have anything, but some people just don’t give you the chance to explain. They see you are Asian, and they stay away from you. What if we were Japanese or Korean? They would do the same thing, I think.”
Fiona also put in evidence that racial discrimination due to infectious diseases may occur because of different personal health and hygiene practices among cultures. Research on wearing masks in Europe conducted by a group of graduate students at Delft University of Technology has shown that for Europeans in the study, masks are something you wear when you are seriously ill. Many interviewees stated that seeing people wearing masks on the street would be perceived as abnormal generating anxiety, panic, and fear. More than half of the Chinese students that took part in the research stated that wearing masks makes them feel safe. However, they also reported being afraid of wearing masks, of being watched strangely by others feeling a sense of inferiority. Due to this, they were willing to give up wearing masks.
Fiona states in her article, “Understanding the differences in behavioural habits of individuals or social groups is the first step in eliminating discrimination.” However, as evidenced by the examples and interviews, we should not underestimate the power of social media in producing bias. De Kai, an AI professor and Google AI ethics council member, stated at Boma’s COVID-19 summit, “Misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation spread by AI amplifies misdirected ‘group thinking,’ conspiracies theories, and racism, driving polarization and hatred, with memes such as ‘Chinese eat bats.’”
It is important to note that the discrimination faced by Chinese and east-Asians, seen at the beginning of the pandemic, seems to have decreased lately. This may be due to the coronavirus becoming a global concern and to nation-states’ effort to implement Who’s directive to avoid linking COVID-19 to a particular country. As stated by an Italian citizen in the past week, “I think that the discrimination we are experiencing now is not toward Chinese, but it is now converted into a general social distancing. Even my neighbor might be the virus’s carrier”.
However, things might soon change because of the continuing trade war between the US and China, which I think should not be underestimated when considering the spread of racism, and because of the re-emergence of the theory that the COVID-19’s virus might have been a product of laboratory experiments. This time is Luc Montagnier, winner of the 2008s medical Nobel prize who sustains this theory saying that the novel coronavirus was created in a laboratory in an effort by scientists to find a cure for AIDS.