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“If I coughed, would I be forced to leave school and get tested,” writes VOX ATL’s James Rhee. “Even though I was certain I didn’t have the virus, the prejudicial remarks being made by my non-Asian classmates had a lasting impact on me.”

Photo collage by James Rhee

OPINION: With COVID-19, Stigma and Xenophobia Are Spreading Faster Than the Virus

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It was only the first period of my school day, but with the recent panic surrounding the growing COVID-19 cases in America, the room was filled with chatter about the coronavirus. Although I felt safe among my classroom peers, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a lot of attention was focused towards me. 

With the correlation between the Asian race and COVID-19, I felt as though it would be easier to target me as a person who had the novel virus. It wasn’t uncommon to hear jokes targeted about my race, which I’ve experienced all throughout my life, so I was used to that.

Suddenly, I felt a need to cough, perhaps due to something I ate in the morning or something in the air, but before nonchalantly coughing, I stopped myself. 

I wondered if I had the right to cough. If I coughed, would the room explode in a fit of disgust or worry? If I coughed, would I be forced to leave school and get tested? Even though I was certain I didn’t have the virus, the prejudicial remarks being made by my non-Asian classmates had a lasting impact on me. 

With the uprising in the new cases being experienced all around the world, the relatively new strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, is a big topic of discussion currently. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the first strain of coronavirus was identified in the 1960s, but this is the most recent form of the coronavirus, one that humans don’t yet have immunity against. 

Concern and caution were expected to come with this new virus as it affects our everyday lives such as shutting down schools to even the economy, as stocks continue to plummet.

But with social media and rumors elevating the panic surrounding the virus, stigma and xenophobia are also huge issues we must deal with as a community. 

As quickly as this virus moves from one person to another, the spread of fake news and racism spreads just as fast, if not faster than the virus. With millions of teens scrolling through the pages of Instagram and Twitter filled with news on COVID-19, it isn’t uncommon to see misleading information that ultimately leads to discrimination. 

For people of Asian descent, stigmatization is a huge issue as they’re now being discriminated against, due to peoples’ ignorance about this virus. One of the main causes of this pandemic of discrimination and xenophobia is from false information such as, “Only Asian people can get Corona.” This type of misleading information also leads to a much more dramatized view of what the virus is actually capable of.

The outbreak was first reported in Wuhan, China, where it has now spread rapidly, infecting well over 140,000 people globally. Many people from surrounding countries view people of Asian descent as the scapegoat as they tend to place the blame on someone or group, which this time, ended up being everyone with an East Asian ethnicity. 

As this pandemic grows, social media plays a huge factor in how people shape their views. Understanding what the virus is capable of is the first step to prevent further discrimination, whether it is unconscious or not. 

Race has nothing to do with the virus

Whether it’s staying away from people who look like they’re Asian to not buying Chinese food because you think it is “contaminated,” these are all forms of ignorance that arise from false information. And a lot of this surfaces from social media. 

Bryan Chong, a junior who attends Greater Atlanta Christian School, told VOX ATL, “As a person who is Asian, I have experienced a lot of discrimination the past week. Just a couple of days ago, me and my friends were at a grocery store and the person in front of me gave me a disgusted look and moved further away from me just because I was Asian.” 

Viruses don’t give people the right to be xenophobic, especially because a virus doesn’t discriminate based on skin color or ethnicity either, so why should you?

Novel viruses, such as COVID-19, are much more infectious as people have not built up their immunity to combat this or found a cure yet. This global pandemic is generating a lot of mass media attention and sparking a lot of social media traffic, with posts ranging from derogatory memes that promote the idea that all Asians have the coronavirus, fake news, and even direct racism. 

As a Generation Z teen, I’m immersed in the endless topics that memes can cover, but these posts can often have devastating effects to people with an Asian ethnicity. Even subtle things such as calling the virus “the China virus,” even unconsciously, can lead to more stigmatization. 

Discrimination through Asian culture

Face masks, another big aspect of Asian culture, are also something that is generating a lot of prejudiced remarks currently. Even though face masks have become very popular within East Asian culture, even becoming a fashion statement in some cases, it is one of the most targetable objects that allow for discrimination and racism due to it’s tangibility. Face masks are a great way to prevent people from spreading the disease or catching it. But just because someone of Asian descent chooses to wear a face mask, it does not give you an excuse or the right to be racist.

This sort of racism and prejudice can have much more traumatic effects than just offending someone’s race or culture. By targeting groups of people, it can leave them feeling doubtful about their own presence in society. It could even possibly prevent them from being tested if they actually do have the virus.

Not everything is fake news

Media coverage isn’t always bad though. In fact, the media is one of the safest and most responsible ways of educating yourself about the virus and how you can safely prevent yourself from getting it. The CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO) and many other verified government and medical sites and posts can be great sources of information on the virus without attaching any false stigma.

Xenophobia and racism are a serious disease in themselves, especially in 2020, where a single press of a button can transmit your thoughts to the entire world. This harmful online culture, where prejudice clouds other people’s views, can be more contagious and can spread faster than any virus.

The same way we are combatting COVID-19 by isolating it and treating it (and ultimately, finding a cure for it), we have to do the same by stopping the spread of ignorance and better educate people about the dangers of transmitting false stigma about the virus.

James, 16, attends Heritage High and loves the world around him and finds ways to impact the world positively every day. He enjoys being a leader and serving the community.


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