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The Health Implications of Xenophobia Directed Toward Asian Americans

By Sravya Chary

In response to the March 16, 2021 attacks targeting spas in Atlanta, GA that resulted in the deaths of eight individuals, six of whom were Asian women, President Biden urged Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.

The legislation was first introduced nearly a year ago, on May 5, 2020, but did not receive a congressional vote at that time.

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, although beneficial as a reactive solution to hate crimes, does little to mitigate the long-term negative health implications of xenophobia on Asian Americans.

The legislation aims to:

  • Facilitate expedited federal response to COVID-19 hate crimes
  • Improve reporting of hate crimes at the state and local government level
  • Make information about hate crimes more accessible to the Asian American community

Further, the act defines a COVID-19 hate crime as a violent crime motivated by: “(1) the actual or perceived characteristic (e.g., race) of any person, and (2) the actual or perceived relationship to the spread of COVID-19 of any person because of that characteristic.”

Although seemingly useful, Anthony Michael Kreis, professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law, states that it’s unclear how a very specific COVID-19 distinction would benefit the existing federal law. However, he claims it may be useful in helping juries understand how Asian American hate crimes manifest.

This solution, however, seems more reactive to hate crimes than the wider systemic issues at play. In addition to this legislation, public health interventions are needed to address the long-ranging effects of hate crimes and xenophobia.

In Potential Impact of COVID 19- Related Racial Discrimination on the Health of Asian Americans, Chen et al. argue that the “[…] COVID-19-related racial discrimination will exert harmful effects on Asian American health.”

Chen et al. provide evidence that this has historically been true; citing the increased rate of suicide and cardiovascular disease exhibited amongst Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II compared to those who were not and, the greater psychological distress associated with post-9/11 discrimination among Muslim Americans.

The authors argue that racial discrimination is associated with overall worsened psychological and physical health outcomes, including a higher rate of mortality. They add that “discrimination exacerbates a range of chronic health conditions, including cardiac disease, respiratory conditions, and pain among Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino individuals in the United States,” according to the literature.

Chen et al. explain how discrimination can lead to decreased access to health services for Asian Americans (who are already the lowest users of mental health services) and a shortage in bilingual/multicultural providers. They further highlight that COVID-19 related stigma may further exacerbate health inequities.

The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act does not address the potential long-term negative health implications of these crimes on Asian Americans. The Act is important and should be passed, but public health interventions — including facilitating access to care, and educating the public and working to mitigate conscious and unconscious biases against Asian Americans, which contribute to poor health outcomes — are also necessary to ensure the well-being of AAPI individuals in the long run.


The above opinions are wholly my own and in no way represent the opinions of my affiliated institutions.

Sravya Chary

Sravya Chary is a manager in the pharmaceutical industry, a Master of Bioethics (MBE) candidate at Harvard Medical School, and a Petrie-Flom student fellow for the 2020-2021 academic year.

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