Sign that reads "Racism is a pandemic too."

The Two Pandemics Facing Asian Americans: COVID-19 and Xenophobia  

By Seema Mohapatra, JD, MPH

When there is an outbreak or emergency, reports of racism and xenophobia often follow.

But in recent pandemics, there have been concerted governmental efforts to thwart nativist attitudes and prejudice, using law as a tool.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, instead of trying to extinguish racist attitudes, the Trump administration has actually spearheaded ways to “other” Asian Americans.

Anti-Asian Sentiment During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The first reported case of COVID-19 was in Wuhan, China. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump and other officials have kindled flames of anti-Asian sentiment by referring to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” and “Wuhan Virus.” The World Health Organization discourages using geographic locations when naming new infectious diseases “to minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people.”  

Starting as early as January 2020, when most Americans were not feeling the daily effect of this pandemic as they are now, many Asian Americans were already starting to face discrimination, from people avoiding them in grocery store aisles to more violent hate crimes. This was due to the mistaken belief that they were somehow more likely to be infected because the first known COVID-19 cases were in China.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have already been almost 2,600 reported cases of anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S. between March and July 2020. As Kimani Paul-Emile noted in her essay for this symposium, patients are exhibiting racist attitudes towards Asian American physicians (who make up 17% of practicing physicians in the U.S.) and nurses during this pandemic. More than half of Asian Americans are worried about being subject to COVID-19-related hate crimes and discrimination, according to the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey.

Xenophobia in Recent History

Such fear is not unwarranted. There are numerous examples of racial and ethnic minorities being targeted during pandemics and emergencies.

When Thomas Eric Duncan, a Dallas resident who had visited family in Liberia, was diagnosed with Ebola in 2014, some immigrants living in the same neighborhood as Duncan’s family were turned away from their workplaces and restaurants. This was due to their skin color and accents, even though they never came into contact with the man who had Ebola. As one article put it, “It doesn’t matter: they’re dark-skinned and foreign. They’re in Dallas. They might be infectious.”

Similarly, during H1N1 epidemic in 2009, Mexican-Americans faced intense discrimination and anti-immigrant sentiment. One talk show host declared that the way to avoid the disease was to avoid Mexican restaurants. Mexican restaurants in the Western United States suffered a drop in business during the epidemic.

Additionally, during the hantavirus epidemic in 1993 in the Southwest United States, the disease was referred to by some journalists as the “Navajo flu” because the first cases were detected in individuals who belonged to the Navajo nation. This led to both reduced tourism to the Navajo nation and discrimination against Navajo individuals. Some restaurants threw away Navajo customers’ plates and discouraged Navajo customers due to the fear of the hantavirus. Two universities, New Mexico State University and the University of Colorado, stigmatized Native American students by requiring them to undergo a medical screening for hantavirus before coming on campus, even though the disease was spread by mice and had no racial component.

The Othering of Asian Americans

Asian Americans have been particularly subject to being treated as “forever foreigners” during past epidemics, even as far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s, with smallpox, cholera, and plague outbreaks.

The false narrative that Chinese immigrants were diseased and dirty led to passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, one early example of structural racism against immigrants.

When the first case of the bubonic plague was identified in Chinatown in San Francisco in 1900, Chinese Americans and immigrants living there were quarantined, but white residents and visitors to Chinatown were not. Such othering occurred again during the so-called Asian Flu in 1957 and during the more recent SARS epidemic in 2003.

Xenophobia is not limited to infectious disease outbreaks, either. After the September 11th attacks, violence and threats against Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, Sikh Americans, South Asian Americans and others perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin followed.

Combatting Pandemic-Fueled Racism

On September 17, 2020, despite 164 Republican members voting against the measure, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that asked “public officials to condemn and denounce anti-Asian sentiment, racism, discrimination, and religious intolerance related to COVID-19” and encouraged officials to take specified steps to document and combat anti-Asian discrimination.

Although this statement is a step in the right direction, there were no action items or requirements in the resolution. The federal government should be tracking and playing a greater role in investigating reports of violence and Anti-Asian harassment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the past, we have seen the federal government respond more vigorously to these types of xenophobia. The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (DOJ) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have better tracked and warned about these events in past pandemics. During the SARS epidemic, acting on advice of the DOJ, President George W. Bush warned against Anti-Asian incidents in light of SARS.

Also during the SARS epidemic, the CDC deployed a community outreach team at the same time as the first cases were confirmed, and this team documented and monitored acts of discrimination and worked to educate individuals against these unjustified fears.

We need something like that once again, both to prevent more acts of discrimination and also to help those in the Asian American community who may be fearful of such attacks, especially as states re-open and Asian-American-owned businesses feel the effects of misinformation.

After the SARS outbreak in the U.S. 16 years ago, the CDC published a report entitled Fear and Stigma: The Epidemic within the SARS Outbreak. The report warned that we should deal with the fears that a future epidemic will likely cause by focusing on effective behavioral and health education strategies and providing timely attention to the special needs of affected populations. Additionally, after the SARS outbreak, researchers outlined the need for  “research—examining how [anti-Asian stigma and discrimination] affects mental health and recovery, practice—implementing evidence-based stigma reduction initiatives, and policy—coordinating federal response to anti-Asian racism including investment in mental health services and community-based efforts.”

Although xenophobia during a time like this is nothing new, learning from the past is needed now more than ever.


Seema Mohapatra is an Associate Professor of Law and Dean’s Fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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