Countering Xenophobia During COVID-19

Emotions run high during times of uncertainty. Fear can bring out the worst in people.

New York City is a diverse metropolis – in cuisine, in entertainment, in culture and in population. For generations, people have come to NYC knowing it is a place where one can be who one chooses to be with little to no question from others – but that in times of need, from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers tend to come together.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, something has changed. This virus has individuals distraught and afraid to be near one another.

Jay, a Taiwanese college student in New York City and a good friend of mine, is one victim of COVID-19. He didn’t catch the virus, but he has been on the receiving end of the fear, hysteria and xenophobia that is has spread in the minds of New Yorkers.

During the second week of March, Jay was seated in a nearly empty C- train en route to his Brooklyn apartment from a meeting with his classmates when he was verbally and physically assaulted on the basis of his nationality. Jay was sprayed with a disinfectant chemical before being slapped in the face for letting out a quiet cough on the train. Instead of stopping the assault or speaking up on Jay’s behalf, the other train riders provided Jay with frowns and looks of disdain.

Jay waiting for a  Metropolitan Transportation Authority train  by B. Oh

Jay looking at the entrance of an MTA station by B. Oh

An MTA card being swiped by B. Oh

Jay is not alone. Incidents against Asian individuals are unfortunately becoming more common in NYC, as Chinatown activists reported in the weeks before New York State went on lockdown.

Anti-Asian discrimination impacts individuals of all genders—and ages. Evelyn is a Chinese-American who was born in Massachusetts and moved to NYC after receiving a job offer from a technology company. Shortly after moving to the city in 2009, Evelyn married a man who she had met through her workplace. Eight years later, the couple gave birth to a child of Asian and Irish background. Evelyn was picking up her 3-year old daughter from daycare earlier this month when she was verbally accosted by another mother for being “the cause” of the virus and was told to “go back to China.” Nearly in tears during their car ride home, Evelyn tried her best to explain to her daughter what had happened and why.

Karen, a Brooklyn-based artist from Korea, had a similar encounter this month when she received death threats and judgment from a group of middle-aged men while walking her dog in her local park.

As for Jay, the hostility that was directed towards him led him to purchase a plane ticket and leave the country:

“Honestly, I feel that Americans don’t have the knowledge on how to prevent this kind of stuff. They just check the [news] headlines and don’t look deeper. I get looked at angrily even when I’m not coughing or sneezing. It is especially bad when entering a closed space. There’s a lot of insulting and cursing. I’ve got to say, being Asian in NYC is very uncomfortable right now.”

In one of the most diverse cities in the world, the rise in xenophobia since the start of the outbreak is truly alarming. Asian individuals and communities in New York City have received an unfair amount of blame for circumstances that they had no hand in causing. With the president using the term “Chinese virus” while addressing a frightened country, it is not too difficult to understand why fingers are being pointed at individuals of Asian descent. COVID-19 does not discriminate based on skin tone, so why are people doing so?

The scare of COVID-19 has society panicking and hungry for answers, but now is not the time to turn on one another. Communities should be organizing to support themselves and keep their members safe—and the rise of mutual aid networks across the country shows, thousands already are. As we face this unprecedented challenge together, we have to turn to love, not fear.

"Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned in this article."