During President Trump’s White House press briefing on March 18, 2020, he began his opening statement “by announcing some important developments in our war against the Chinese virus.” And while some questioned his xenophobic choice of words, the President justified his use by deeming it “not racist at all…because it comes from China.” The President jeopardized Asian Americans across the country with his inaccurate label.
The government in Wuhan, China confirmed its first cases of Covid-19 as early as December 31, 2019. The virus, which originated from a small market in Wuhan, has rapidly spread globally. Weeks after the first Covid-19 death, the World Health Organization declared a “Global Health Emergency.” Now, with an increasing number of cases in the US, discrimination towards Asian Americans are rising simultaneously after the President’s speech.
One of the first hate crimes linked to the coronavirus was in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, where multiple businesses were forced to close. The executive director of the Chinatown Development Cooperation in Philadelphia commented, “It’s this crazy notion that if you are Chinese or Asian American, somehow you are responsible for carrying the coronavirus.” Even before the state mandated closures, several businesses owned by Asian Americans saw a rapid decline in local support.
A day after the President’s briefing, a man walking in Philadelphia was attacked and robbed. The attackers recorded and posted the video of the incident on Instagram out of xenophobic rage. This violence, validated by Trump’s comments, ignorantly blames every Chinese person or perceived as Chinese for the virus, and allows anti-Asian bias from critics.
Government officials, news outlets, and social media platforms must be more aware of how they are perpetrating news of the outbreak to the public.
The hate crime in Philadelphia is not unique. There have been other stories on social media highlighting hate crimes other Asian Americans have encountered over the past several weeks. Instagram accounts like AsiansNeverDie or NextShark have shared upsetting incidents where Asians are subject to mental and physical abuse. An article released by NextShark spotlights the story of an Asian man being confronted in Target because he coughed in public. These quick acts of accusations make our world less humane, and crueler to our youth, elderly, and neighbors in the Asian community.
The President is not the only person responsible for this hatred. The media also have a unique way of captivating our society’s attention and contributed to the rise of hate crimes and xenophobia towards Asian Americans. Many news articles have used unrelated photos of someone of Asian descent wearing a mask to illustrate any news about Covid-19. The first confirmed case in Manhattan was a woman who had contracted the virus in Iran, but the photo used by the New York Post was of an Asian man in Queens wearing a face mask.
Racism is detrimental to public health. Our national leaders and the media have caused Asian Americans to feel unsafe, even in their own homes. As Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, noted last month, “Ethnicity is not what causes the novel coronavirus,” yet government officials continue to use that language and see it as acceptable.
It’s important to recognize that the actions of the government and the media influence society’s perceptions immensely. Government officials, news outlets, and social media platforms must be more aware of how they are perpetrating news of the outbreak to the public. The focus of the government’s public health messages should be culturally sensitive and factually correct. This is the only humane way to communicate information about the pandemic without using racial comments or imagery to encourage violence and prejudice.