Stop the discrimination and panic, and let common sense prevail, say U.S. officials, doctors, entrepreneurs and health experts, urging the American public to guard against any xenophobia surrounding the novel coronavirus.
by Miao Xiaojuan
NEW YORK, Feb. 11 (Xinhua) -- As China races to contain the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and minimize its international spread, Chinese nationals living abroad are having to fight a battle of their own -- of stigma and discrimination.
The 2019-nCoV, which started in the Chinese city of Wuhan and can cause respiratory illness and pneumonia, has infected 42,638 people on the Chinese mainland as of Monday. In the United States, only 12 cases have been confirmed and the immediate risk of the virus remains low to the general public.
However, false health information, including warnings to avoid Asian food and Asian-populated areas, has circulated, while a barrage of vicious discussions and derogatory jokes about Chinese people or Asians in general have gathered momentum online.
"I am very concerned and it's unfortunate. There's no reason for the American public to fear Asians in our community, and it really saddens me to hear these stories," Nancy Messonnier, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told Xinhua.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York, on Feb. 4, 2020. Guterres voiced concern about the possibility of discrimination against certain groups of people due to the novel coronavirus epidemic.(Xinhua/Wang Jiangang)
Her words were echoed by Dr. Marybeth Sexton, assistant professor at the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine.
"All of the infected patients are either isolated at home or hospitalized, and public health officials are closely monitoring anyone else who is at high risk of having had exposure," Sexton said. "There's no reason to assume that anyone you meet in public, of any ethnic or racial background, poses a risk to you."
It is critical that the American public guards against any xenophobia surrounding the novel coronavirus and lets common sense prevail, as urged by U.S. officials, doctors, entrepreneurs and CDC experts during their interviews with Xinhua.
A so-called virus of misinformation and disinformation could be a greater danger than the novel coronavirus itself, observers have said, adding that a concern for public health should not justify anti-Asian sentiments.
FIGHTING RACIAL STEREOTYPING
In recent weeks, an 8-year-old boy in Washington State wearing a face mask was told by a Costco sample-stand worker to go away because he may come from China; students at Columbia University in New York City were welcomed by a Chinese-language message reading "Wuhan virus isolation area" on a blackboard in a university library; the health services center of the University of California at Berkeley (UC-Berkeley) listed xenophobia toward Asians as a "normal reaction" in an Instagram post on managing fear and anxiety about the viral outbreak; videos of Asian people eating bats accompanied by inaccurate speculation about the cause of the virus and dehumanizing comments went viral; and The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia."
Media reports of the above incidents sparked public outcry, prompting many to speak out and action to be taken.
Costco has since apologized to the boy and his family; Columbia University has called on students to report any racist incidents; UC-Berkeley has revised its handout, which now reads "Be mindful of your assumptions about others" and "Self-awareness is important in not stigmatizing others in our community"; the viral bat-eating video was discovered to have been shot in the Pacific Island nation of Palau, where the dish is a delicacy; and social media users have slammed The Wall Street Journal's piece for resurrecting an archaic stereotype while making light of a serious outbreak, with an online petition, which demands an apology from the outlet to the Chinese community and either a retraction of the article or a rectification of its title, soliciting over 113,000 signatures within days.
Meanwhile, Peter Koo, New York City Council member for the city's 20th district, which includes Flushing, where over a third of its 150,000 residents are Chinese Americans, has warned against calling the virus the "Wuhan coronavirus" or "China coronavirus."
"(Viruses are) color-blind. Naming a virus after a country or a city is an unfair insult that exacerbates discrimination against people from China," Koo said.
New York City Councilman Peter Koo speaks in an interview with Xinhua in Flushing, New York, the United States, Feb. 7, 2020.(Xinhua/Guo Peiran)
WEARING A MASK DOESN'T MEAN ILLNESS
A recent video on Twitter showed a man attacking a mask-wearing Asian woman at a Manhattan subway station while cursing at her, shouting, "Don't touch me!" The man called her "diseased," according to Tony He, the New York resident who posted the video.
Asian people often wear face masks for daily self-protection from germs, allergies and dust. Since the viral outbreak, many mask-wearing Chinese people living abroad have become victims of abuse due to the heightened fear caused by the coronavirus among the American public.
Noting his office has received complaints from parents whose kids wearing face masks are being bullied at school, Koo said while Americans usually might only wear face masks when they are sick, they should still not stigmatize Asians for wearing them.
"I hope the Americans will understand that when Asians wear face masks, it does not mean they are sick. But it takes time and education to change cultural perceptions," said the councilman.
Scott Sieber, the councilman's deputy chief of staff with years of experience in Asian communities, said that as an American, he actually appreciates when Chinese people wear face masks.
"To me, it's someone being precautious and also looking after people around him or her. I understand this as I am familiar with the culture," Sieber said.
The CDC and doctors in general believe there is no need to wear a face mask in the United States, only urging people to wash their hands often and avoid being out in public when sick. Charlie Woo, co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based toy manufacturing company Megatoys, however, called on Asian Americans to keep explaining they are not sick when wearing face masks.
"If any Asian feels more comfortable wearing face masks, he or she has every right to do so," Woo said, who is also vice chair of the Committee of 100 -- a group composed of elite Chinese Americans striving to ensure full inclusion in the country and advance U.S.-China relations.
"The United States has racial issues since the beginning. Hopefully, we make progress one day at a time," Woo said.
CHINATOWNS STILL SAFE
Angela Wang, owner of a decade-old hair salon in Flushing, said a third of her regular customers used to be non-Chinese, but two days after her employees started wearing face masks, they all stopped coming, in addition to a significant drop in the number of her regular Chinese customers.
"All of us have taken off the masks, but our business declined by 90 percent in the past week. If customers are not coming back and the rents are not going down, we might have to shut down within two months," said Wang, who came to the United States 18 years ago from east China's Zhejiang province.
Inside a hair salon in Flushing, New York City, the United States. (Xinhua/Miao Xiaojuan)
Wang's hair salon is but one of many struggling economically, as Flushing's economic activities have dropped by about 30 percent recently. A sales manager at a spacious dim sum restaurant, who asked to remain anonymous, believes this could be the heaviest blow to their neighborhood in many years.
Seeing the virus fear put a dampener on businesses in Chinatowns and Asian communities like Flushing, city officials have told citizens not to change their day-to-day activities.
As Mark Treyger, New York City Council Member for the city's 47th district, tweeted, "Stick to the facts about coronavirus by getting your info from trained medical professionals and reliable sources. Basic hygiene rules apply. Call out hate when you see it, and continue to shop, dine and go about your normal everyday routine."
New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot even took the initiative to dine at Chinese restaurants and attend Chinatown celebrations, sharing her experiences on Twitter.
"I've been disheartened by reports of bias and discrimination against the Asian community recently. Let me be clear - our public health response is about a virus, not a group of people," she tweeted Thursday, with a picture of her and two others dining at a Chinese restaurant.
Then on Sunday she tweeted again, "Today our city is celebrating the Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown, a beautiful cultural tradition with a rich history in the city. I want to remind everyone to enjoy the parade and not change any plans due to misinformation spreading about coronavirus."
People watch the Chinese Lunar New Year parade in Manhattan's Chinatown of New York City, the United States, Feb. 9, 2020. (Xinhua/Li Muzi)
INFLUENZA BIGGER THREAT IN U.S.
While the novel coronavirus continues to dominate headlines, officials and doctors have to remind the American public that influenza is actually a bigger threat.
Councilman Koo pointed out that in New York City, where there are no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus yet, the average person has a much higher chance of getting sick from the flu than from the virus.
Dr. Sexton also said, "Getting a flu vaccine is very helpful. If people are sick with respiratory symptoms, they should put on a mask in a healthcare waiting room to avoid infecting other people."
The CDC estimates that so far this season, there have been at least 22 million illnesses, 210,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths from the flu.
No wonder then that in a recent interview with The Boston Globe, Prof. Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said, "anti-Chinese racism centered around the coronavirus outbreak isn't just ugly, it's illogical."
"The fact of the matter is we are facing a health crisis right now in the United States, and it's a domestic one and it's the flu," Watanabe said.
(Video Reporters: Guo Peiran, Miu Xiaojuan, Li Baodong, Li Haitao. Video editor: Zheng Xin)■