Medical Examiner

The Panic Over Chinese People Doesn’t Come From the Coronavirus

Man wearing a surgical mask and sunglasses, walking outside.
A man minding his own business in Queens, New York. Johannes Eisele/Getty Images

As soon as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first known U.S. case of the Wuhan coronavirus on Jan. 21, the panic began. Within an hour of the announcement, I saw a Facebook comment from a friend who expressed worry that someone in her family had come down sick after going to a conference where there had been “many” Chinese people. By the end of the week, I saw a spate of articles suggesting that the virus originated in markets selling the “unusual” foods Chinese people eat—a claim scientists are now questioning—and a friend told me an older woman on her flight threw a fit because there was an Asian woman wearing a face mask. Casual acts of racism against Asians were spreading more quickly than the virus itself.

As of Tuesday afternoon, only 11 people in the U.S. have been confirmed to have the virus, but Asian Americans across the country are reporting racist jokes (“They say we eat dogs,” one Boston student told the Boston Globe) and being shunned (Asian Arizona State University students say white classmates have avoided them). Asians in the U.K. and Australia have described similar treatment, despite only a handful of cases in each country, and in Canada, where there have been four confirmed cases of the virus, Toronto Mayor John Tory went as far as to formally discourage racism against Chinese Canadians. And the profiling isn’t limited to countries in which Asians are minorities: In Seoul, stores are posting “No Chinese allowed” signs; airlines are canceling flights to mainland China. This level of panic befits a global pandemic, but so far the Wuhan coronavirus has yet to reach that point. Outside of China, there have been fewer than 170 reported cases of the virus, and many of those infected have shown mild symptoms similar to the average flu and have recovered at home.

Perhaps the most telling incident occurred last week at the University of California–Berkeley. Its student health center posted a list to Instagram of “normal” reactions to the coronavirus including anxiety, hypervigilance, and xenophobia, which it defined as “fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about those feelings.” After alumni complained that the post normalized racism, the university deleted the post and tweeted an apology. Nonetheless, the post makes explicit what has largely remained implicit: that because the Asians you encounter in your day to day are somehow more likely to be carrying the disease, it’s reasonable to avoid them.

It’s easy to read these incidents as the product of knee-jerk fear and ignorance. But that fear isn’t merely instinctive—it’s acculturated. “There’s a long history of thinking of Asians as disease carriers that’s at least 200 years old,” says Jason Oliver Chang, an associate professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Connecticut. “People don’t have to know that they’ve learned this racial story; it’s already a part of how you react, and it shows how pervasive it is in our popular culture.”

That belief started in the 1800s, as colonial powers conscripted Chinese laborers into the coolie trade. These laborers were typically living in cramped, unsanitary conditions without access to medical care, an environment ripe for disease. When outbreaks inevitably struck in coolie camps or on boats carrying laborers, local communities grew paranoid and associated the Chinese workers with disease. “It’s always been a part of the racial fiction, the racial story that people tell about Asians in the 19th century: that they’re the bad apples, the diseases are the result of bad food, bad culture—that it’s an outcome of being racially inferior,” says Chang. That stereotype can still be found in the current discourse around the Wuhan coronavirus: that the Chinese brought the disease upon themselves by eating the “weird” animals where the virus originated.

It wasn’t long after the arrival of Chinese workers that the narrative of Chinese as disease carriers began to be deployed as a political device to justify Asian exclusion. Being clear about who was “out” also served to define who was “in.” Marginalized communities like Irish Americans used anti-Chinese sentiment to align themselves with white communities in power. During the 1900s San Francisco outbreak of bubonic plague and the more recent 2003 Toronto SARS outbreak, people shunned city Chinatowns, leaving local businesses in dire straits. Chang, who has studied anti-Chinese racism in Mexico, says that some Mexican states chose to pass laws against Chinese immigration in the early 1900s, even though there were few Chinese residents at the time. “That shows it’s not actually about [Chinese people] or the presence of them, but what the politics affords,” he says. “Anti-Chinese politics is flexible.”

A similar game is playing out now. While the World Health Organization has explicitly advised against travel restrictions based on currently available information about the virus, the U.S. has banned all non-U.S. citizens from entering the country if they’ve recently traveled to China. Singapore, the Philippines, and Australia have also banned Chinese travelers, and businesses like Google and Facebook are not allowing employees to travel to China. These border closings are purportedly about preventing the spread of disease, but they also make a political statement, says Chang. “The question isn’t so much infection, but global standing,” he says. By proposing travel bans, Asian countries signal savvy and alignment with other international powers. “It’s directed at the international audience, neighbors: ‘We’re more advanced, and we’re ready to close off now.’ ”

If panic was commensurate with the virus’s prevalence or symptoms, one might expect to see more paranoia around the flu than the coronavirus. But this virus’s connection to “mysterious” China has driven some fantastical thinking that implicates Chinese people. Narratives around Asian paranoia have shifted to further justify profiling: There’s a conspiracy theory that Asian people in general are somehow genetically more susceptible to the virus, which is currently making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook as well as through Russian propaganda site Russia Insider. Another theory suggests that the Wuhan coronavirus was created in a lab by Chinese scientists as a bioweapon. This led to a Chinese scientist’s doxing.

For many Asians, the profiling and harassment are a reminder that many people see them in only one dimension: race. People of Chinese descent live all over the world, and many have never even been to China, yet they’re more likely to be singled out as potential virus carriers. It says more about latent fears than realistic ones. Social media campaigns have sprung up to combat these stereotypes—French Chinese are using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I’m not a virus). Other people have taken to TikTok, using humor to decry racist treatment. Chang and his colleagues have created an open document called “Treating Yellow Peril: Resources to Address Coronavirus Racism” that includes papers on the history of anti-Chinese sentiments, news on travel bans, and links to official government and CDC announcements.

In the meantime, the CDC advises people concerned about the coronavirus to take the same precautions one would take against known viruses: wash your hands, and don’t put your dirty hands in your mouth, eyes, or nose. The agency has no recommendations about specific people or places to avoid. After all, when it comes to highly contagious viral diseases like the measles, the greatest threat originates right here at home.