For the first time in my life, I fear walking outside or riding the subway. Not because of the coronavirus, but because I’m Asian.
More than 650 racist incidents were reported to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, a coalition of community-based groups in Los Angeles, in just one week in March. A man hit a Forest Hills dad in front of his son at a bus stop while yelling, “You [expletive] Chinese!” and another man stabbed an entire family at a Texas grocery store. In Midtown, a woman punched a 23-year-old Korean student, yelling, “You’ve got coronavirus, you Asian [expletive]!” and the student went to Bellevue Hospital for possible jaw dislocation. A friend in one of my classes was walking recently in Manhattan when some people yelled “Yuck!” and “Get out of here!” As a Korean-American medical student in Manhattan, that could have been me.
On Tuesday, Ipsos released a survey for the Center for Public Integrity with alarming findings: 30% of Americans say they have seen someone blame Asians for the COVIID-19 pandemic, and 60% of Asians, who made up 6% of respondents, say they have seen the same behavior.
That is so different from when I came to the United States at age 6. Then, I hardly ever encountered racism. Instead, my teachers, who happened to be white, were supportive and encouraging. My fifth-grade teacher in Baltimore even surprised me at graduation with a scholarship with some of her retirement funds, an act of kindness that moves me to this day, and makes me dream of giving back as she did. In fact, the desire to give back has fueled my studies to become a doctor. But as an Asian-American medical student watching COVID-19 unfold, I feel a sharp conflict in my identity because on one hand, Asian Americans are targeted, and on the other hand, medical professionals are regarded as modern-day heroes. I am confused and discouraged by the outbreaks of racism in a country that has shown me openness and acceptance.
In a disaster like this one, people want to assign blame. For some, finding someone to blame can help make sense of the situation. Blame can also be an emotional response to hold others responsible for our own resentment, indignation, or guilt. In the history of epidemics, this isn’t the first time Asian Americans have faced hostility. During smallpox in 1876, a San Francisco health officer blamed “unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinamen” for their “diabolical disregard of our sanitary laws,” according to Nayan Shah, author of “Contagious Divides.” When bubonic plague hit the area in 1900, local health authorities planned to inject Chinese and Japanese people with a highly toxic experimental vaccine. During SARS in 2003, people on the internet circulated emails warning to avoid Asian areas, causing New York City’s Chinatown to experience dramatic drops in business. In other epidemics, other immigrants have been scapegoats: Irish immigrants for typhoid and West Africans for Ebola. In this crisis, President Donald Trump has repeatedly called COVID-19 “Chinese virus” as a way of blaming the disease on foreigners. This was even after the World Health Organization published best practices in 2015 stating “disease names may NOT include” geographic locations, learning from past unintended stigmatization.
Looking forward, my classmates and I are volunteering in a medical student task force assisting our front-line health care providers. Instead of directing attacks against our Asian neighbors, let’s focus on coming together to beat the virus. Let’s move forward, and stop looking backward to attribute blame.
Kate E. Lee is a third-year medical student at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.