My college-aged daughter, who is Asian, was subjected to a “joke” at work the other day (this was after the outbreak of COVID-19, but before things got really locked down). “This girl just contaminated me!” a white woman called out to her friends as she frantically pumped hand sanitizer on herself. My daughter is in Canada, sealed off from me by a closed border. I worry for her, just as everyone worries for their friends and family right now. Will she get enough to eat? Will she have access to medical care if she needs it? The added burden of racist taunting — and dark thoughts of what could follow it as the situation worsens — fills me with a helpless rage and sadness.
And this is hardly an isolated incident of blatant racism in response to the outbreak. The damage is real and immediate. There are countless heart-breaking stories:
All businesses are hurting right now, but Asian-owned businesses were the first to suffer. Then came more subtle forms of discrimination. Even the “comforting” information that COVID-19 “is more likely to affect the old and sickly” implies those groups are less valuable. Another form of barely disguised racism is referring to it as “the Chinese virus.” The World Health Organization in 2015 asked governments and the media to not name a virus “after people, a geographic location, a cultural group or even a species of animal, because that can stigmatize communities.” This is not a matter of quibbling over words. Racist framing of this public health emergency is causing hate crimes against Asians to increase.
Turning to racism to explain disasters unfortunately has a rich and long history. In the form of pure superstition, or in the cloak of a “rational” argument, vulnerable groups have always been blamed for disasters and pandemics. A highly incomplete list includes when:
Here in Seattle, a conspiracy theory has been spreading that blames unhoused people for the spread of the virus — a particularly cruel notion given how at-risk this population already is and how much more they are likely to suffer in the current crisis.
The tragic irony is that if anything should bring us together, it’s this. Something that crosses borders, that makes no distinctions of race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation. The virus demonstrates that we’re all connected whether we like it or not. From Europeans singing on their balconies and Japanese virtual happy-hour celebrants to Muslim worshipers in Kuwait altering the traditional call to prayer, the virus shows that human suffering is the same around the world — as is human resilience. It’s a master class in our shared humanity.
We all know the worst might still be to come. What will happen to our friends and neighbors in the service industry? What happens if the hospitals are overwhelmed? Will the food supply chain continue to function? (At least in this country, and at least for now, it seems that it will.)
Rather than dwell on the tectonic changes rocking our world, let’s focus on the things we can control. We may need to get more creative than we ever thought we could as we look for ways to help each other. There has been an understandable rush to stock up on essentials, but let’s also figure out how to share resources without spreading our shared microscopic enemy. If other parts of society stop functioning, our social networks will become a vital safety net. So let’s check in on our neighbors via safe channels. Let’s keep each other’s spirits up and share information.
To do all this, we will need to reach past the false divisions of fear and hatred. A silver lining to this global disaster is the opportunity to build a better, more compassionate world. Let’s think big and stick together. We’re all we have.
David W. Stoesz is a Seattle-based author, Slalom staff writer, and editor of The Slowdown.