Since the discovery of the new coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, people of Asian descent around the world report receiving hate-fueled comments online, seeing xenophobic memes, and experiencing in-person discrimination. Some members of the Asian community have taken to social media to share their experiences, using hashtags like #Iamnotavirus and putting pressure on media to combat the racism.
World Health Organization (WHO) officials reported the outbreak in Wuhan on Dec. 31. The number of confirmed cases is now close to 30,000 as of Feb. 6, in at least 28 countries and regions including the United States. The strain is part of a family of viruses that includes SARS and MERS, which also led to worldwide panic in 2003 and 2012-2013, respectively. Though the mortality rate of the new coronavirus is relatively low at about 2%, fear of contracting the disease has led to a face mask shortage, travel bans, and racially fueled misinformation. Some conspiracy theorists even asserted, falsely, that the coronavirus may be a bioweapon; other internet users suggested they would avoid areas populated by Asian communities.
That’s why people all over the world are speaking out against racializing the virus. On Instagram, New Zealand-based comic book artist and illustrator Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom posted a drawing of a person wearing a face mask with the text "I am not a virus" to call attention to the discrimination people are facing. “The response was immediate but also vile,” Sjöblom, who has Korean and Swedish heritage, tells Bustle over email, adding that the post attracted racist comments.
Here, people with Asian backgrounds tell Bustle that the discrimination that’s spreading alongside coronavirus is some of the worst they’ve ever experienced.
When Sammi, 35, arrived at her annual OB/GYN checkup, she found her doctor’s office doors were locked. She assumed that the clinic’s staff members were busy, so she waited outside. However, a few minutes later, Sammi says a white patient was allowed through the doors. “Then I realized there was something wrong,” she says.
Sammi says a doctor came out of the clinic to talk to her and told her that they were no longer seeing Chinese patients due to coronavirus. The physician, after asking if Sammi had any immediate medical need, recommended she come back at the end of the year instead, so Sammi left. (The doctor’s office tells Bustle that they cannot provide details about incidents with specific patients, citing confidentiality rules, but says they are actively reaching out to individuals to determine their risk of carrying coronavirus prior to their arrival at the clinic to ensure the safety of others.)
“In the beginning, I was shocked,” Sammi says. “They gave me the excuse that they’re trying to protect other patients, but I’m also a patient.”
Sammi filed a formal complaint with the Berlin Doctors’ Council against the clinic, and Sammi wrote about the incident on Google Reviews and on social media. While Sammi says she can see why fear could drive her doctor to be extra cautious, the incident left her feeling unsafe as an immigrant in Germany. “There’s a concern that [if] I make another appointment, they’ll give me the same reaction,” she says.
Elizabeth was born and raised in the United States by Chinese parents. She says the racism she’s witnessed in response to the new coronavirus outdoes anything she saw during events like the SARS outbreak: Her 17-year-old son was bullied so aggressively, she says, he stopped going to school. “He asked me where the face masks were and I was like, ‘Why do you want a face mask?’” Elizabeth tells Bustle. “Kids at school were making fun of him, coughing purposefully on him, saying that he had the coronavirus or that he was going to get the coronavirus because he's Asian. ... I reassured him we have the best medical facilities and they are taking care of [coronavirus].”
Elizabeth says she tried to get the administration’s attention but doesn’t think they realized how much the bullying affected him, though they excused her son’s absences. Later in the week, the school issued a blanket notice that students and families don’t need to be concerned about contracting the virus. (The district tells Bustle it cannot verify information around incidents concerning minors.)
While Elizabeth knew that she’d have to teach her children about racism eventually, she never thought she’d have to explain to her son that being Chinese didn’t mean he was “dirty,” like bullies had made him feel.
“This is literally the first time I've ever felt a conscious, ‘stay away from Asians’ type of feeling,” she says.
Emma, 25, was excited to start a new job in high-end retail in early February. But on her first day, she says, one of her new co-workers refused to shake her hand in front of her team. "I would shake your hand, but like… coronavirus," Emma recalls the colleague saying.
Emma, who emigrated from China at age 6, didn’t know how to react. She says neither she nor any of her colleagues spoke up during the incident. No one addressed the exchange after the fact, and she doesn’t feel comfortable reporting it to her boss. “It was my first day,” she says. “I didn’t want to immediately pick a fight or be confrontational.”
Her uncertainty quickly turned to shame that she didn’t speak up for herself. As she’s seen racism surrounding coronavirus manifest, she hasn’t been able to shake that feeling, even though she hasn’t had much interaction with the colleague since. “I wasn’t able to defend myself, and I just let her get away with it,” Emma says.
Emma says this was the first time she’s experienced such a direct form of discrimination in Canada, and hopes the racism brought on by the outbreak fades. An event like coronavirus, she “can happen any time to anyone,” she says. “You can’t blame an entire population for something that is a tragedy.”