Racism during the Covid-19 Outbreak


Sanghun Byun

It’s ironic how a disease is personified through names like “Chinese virus,” while Asians are dehumanized to viruses under terms like “corona.” Ever since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a global health emergency in January of 2020, the world was quick to point its fingers at Chinese, or anyone of Asian descent. Patients are asking to be treated by non-Asian doctors, service at restaurants and shops are denied to Asians, racial slurs and violence are spreading rapidly, and insulting behaviors like spitting on people’s faces has become acceptable. 

But in truth, these practices of identifying a disease with a certain ethnic group are not surprising. The SARS diseases in 2002 from China, the MERS disease in 2012 from Saudi Arabia, and the Ebola disease in 2013 from the Democratic Republic of Congo all led to rampant racism and xenophobia, not only against the citizens of their respective countries of origin but also against anyone of the same race. Nevertheless, there seem to be a few factors that have made racism more prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic than the previous ones. For one, there are 62.5 million covid cases worldwide, and the death toll is at 1.46 million: fear and anger are understandable during such heartbreaking times. But this pandemic also seems to have provided space for pre-existing prejudices. Stereotypes that Asians eat “whatever that moves,” was confirmed for many people when it was revealed that consumption of bats in China contributed to the spread. “Yellow peril,” or the western fear that East Asians will corrupt and endanger their society, was revitalized. But why are such discriminations during pandemics so ubiquitous, and repeated throughout history?

It seems like whenever people are frustrated by a situation they cannot control, they want to give form to that frustration—oftentimes anger—and target it at something or someone. Only then would they feel in control of their situation.  

Yet, the consequences of these actions are detrimental to society. For one, racism scars people for life. According to a study in BMC Public Health, “experience of racism can affect health…   [through] stress pathways, with negative psychological and physiological impacts leading to subsequent mental and physical health consequences.” But going beyond that, racism can contribute to the spread of diseases by silencing the targeted race. When a certain group is blamed for a disease, people of that group, in an attempt to avoid more condemnation, will attempt to hide symptoms and interact normally with others. This dishonesty jeopardizes the health of others, makes contact tracing difficult, and hence contributes to the problem.


With these consequences in mind, terms like “Wuhan virus,” “Chinese virus,” or “kung flu” which connect a certain race with the virus do not help solve the issue. There has been anger towards the Chinese government’s delay in sounding the alarm; these waves of anger, however, must not extend towards Chinese citizens, or the Asian community. After all, whether you are Asian, white, black, or Hispanic, Covid-19 affects all of us equally without discrimination. Our society is best preserved if we work collectively towards a common goal rather than tearing each other apart from within.