Panaro: The racism at the heart of the coronavirus crisis

Kevin Panaro, Staff Columnist

Rising fears over the coronavirus outbreak in the Hubei province of mainland China have caused increasing worry and panic—not just for China itself, but the many countries that depend on its vast trade network for daily economic activities. The respiratory disease has had far-reaching consequences, namely contributing to the idling of the Chinese economy by disrupting the activities of major companies like Apple, Ikea, Starbucks, Ford and Toyota, all of which have been forced to reroute supply chains, close stores or stall assembly plants.

In the weeks following the announcement of the disease, fears have grown amongst Americans, especially with the Trump administration having recently declared a state of emergency. Fortunately, there are professionals, like pediatrician Aaron Carroll, trying to counter the panic with information. In a Feb. 10 article for The New York Times, Carroll offered some health tips, chiefly to wash your hands as thoroughly and frequently as possible. Some more pieces of advice include using face masks effectively and keeping your hands away from your face. This type of media response is evidence of the disease’s increasing prominence.

In a little less than a month, the outbreak has gone from a primarily Chinese issue to a global and cultural phenomenon. Signs that China is taking the threat seriously, namely quarantining the entire city of Wuhan—approximately 11 million people—are certainly reassuring. However, the severity of the cases reported in the United States have been largely overstated. They have largely served to cause cultural and societal strife for Asian-Americans everywhere, especially those in school.

On Feb. 8, The Washington Post reported that someone connected to Arizona State University (ASU) had tested positive for the disease, which caused a shock wave to reverberate throughout the campus. ASU is not the only college to have reported instances of the virus. Baylor University in Texas and Wesleyan University in Connecticut have also had similar reports in recent days. 

Regardless of actual diagnosable instances of coronavirus, the reports of racially-charged jabs about the disease in campuses across the country have risen in recent weeks. Students of Asian descent have begun to fear the implications this news might have for their perception in the student body at large: that a sneeze or cough might draw extra eyes, or their presence at a library table might cause others to get up and leave.

The local Northeast Ohio NPR channel recently reported about instances of discrimination stemming from worries about the coronavirus, citing Asian Services in Action (ASIA) CEO, Elaine Tso. Tso emphasized that, even though there is nothing genetically different about Asians that puts them at a higher risk of contracting or spreading the virus, many wrongly assume they could have the disease. Some Cleveland Asian-American business owners have reported a decrease in customers after news of coronavirus made national television. “Being Asian-American or Chinese is not equivalent to being the coronavirus,” said Tso. 

Even though there are no confirmed, or even threatened, cases of coronavirus in Cleveland, it is still considerably affecting our community.

Case Western Reserve University needs to take conscious steps to prevent these types of jokes, in lieu of both Diversity 360 and, more importantly, campus unity. Asking students of Asian descent about the coronavirus, accusing them of having the disease or making comments when one of them has a head cold may be juvenile in intent, but they have ramifications beyond just a joke in poor taste. Aside from being instances of micro aggressions, they open the door to stereotypes about other diseases originating from foreign countries and draw on a storied history of discrimination and offensive assumptions.

For example, the influenza epidemic of 1918, which killed about 50 million people, is sometimes referred to by historians as the Spanish Flu. This is not because it originated from Spain, but because the Spanish were the first to report openly about the disease—an act which other European powers were scared to do because of fears of national embarrassment. A century later, the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014 caused major socioeconomic disruption and loss of life in Guinea and Liberia, among other countries. If these devastating effects were not enough, many Americans of African descent had to deal with derogatory slights that they themselves might have the disease. In a similar fashion to the coronavirus, coughs and head colds could prompt claims that, jokingly or not, are harmful and drive us backwards as a society.

While the coronavirus itself may be a worldwide health crisis, disrupting the global economy in never-before-seen ways, the negative cultural and social stereotypes surrounding it are nothing out of the ordinary. As CWRU students, it is important we are aware of the effect that our jokes can have not just on Asian and Asian-American students, but also on other ethnicities and the diseases wrongly associated with them. No matter the harmless intent, and even if the targets of the jokes claim to be okay with the jabs, they perpetuate racist and offensive prejudices we should be working to eliminate.