Asian Americans Face Stigma as Coronavirus Fear Spreads

By Mimi Hamada ’20

As mainstream media continues to portray Asians as the transmitters of COVID-19 (more commonly known as the coronavirus), Asian Americans have experienced an increase in discrimination and xenophobia. In Chicago, these fears have resulted in drastic declines in business for Asian American-owned enterprises as well as other instances of racism. 

Media sources, among others, are guilty of perpetuating the fear that Asian Americans transmit the coronavirus. For example, when news of the first few cases of the virus broke in New York City, multiple reputable news outlets used images of New York’s Chinatown alongside their articles even though the infected person was neither Chinese nor Asian, and was actually from Manhattan, not Chinatown. Also, other news outlets are using images of Asian Americans wearing face masks even when the news story does not pertain to the Asian American community but rather is just about the spread of the coronavirus in general. The constant use of images like these has promoted avoidance of Asian American communities in fear of being infected. “Since most news companies run on exaggerated titles, people across the world begin to digest these eye-catching titles rather than properly researching the topic at hand. This exaggeration leads to unjustified outrage, which ends in the rise of xenophobia in Chicago’s Chinatown and Chinese community,” said Aaron Huang ‘20.  

In Chicago, Chinatown’s economy has been greatly suffering as a result of the media attention and severe decreases in the amount of consumers who use their services. Restaurants that used to have lines out of their doors now struggle to fill their tables even during peak hours. Emma Yu, a member of Chinatown’s Chamber of Commerce, reported a shocking 50-80% decrease in sales during the month of February. 

“Ever since the media started reporting on the coronavirus, Chinatown has been eerily empty and silent,” said Wendy Ruan ‘20. “The Chinatown in my memory is always teeming with traffic and cars driving around to find an empty spot to park in, but now the parking lots are dotted with just a couple cars. The restaurants barely have any service and some have been closed ever since the first report of coronavirus in the news.” 

Along with Asian American businesses experiencing steep declines in sales, members of the Asian American community have also experienced discrimination and racism related to the coronavirus. “I’ve actually had a whole row of people get up and find a seat elsewhere on the train just because my mom sat down,” said Sara Zhang ‘20. “I find these reactions to be ridiculous but at the same time really funny. Ridiculous because being Asian doesn’t automatically give you a higher likelihood to contract COVID-19.” 

Instances on the CTA seem to be commonplace as other Payton students have also experienced them. “Since I take the Red Line to commute to school, some people on the train would cover their mouths as people of East Asian descent, myself included, passed by,” said Huang. He also experienced someone asking when a train would leave the Chinatown Red Line stop because they didn’t “want to get sick from these people.”

Many in the Asian American community have also seen an increase in internalized racism as members of their community avoid Asian American-owned businesses in order to evade contracting the virus. “My own family told me to stop visiting Chinatown because I was bound to catch Coronavirus from all the Chinese people there, even though we are Chinese ourselves,” said Ruan. 

Payton clubs, such as Asian American Club (AAC) and Asian Student Initiative (ASI), are taking measures to educate the Payton community on the effects that news sensationalism has had on the Asian American community. “AAC recently had a full presentation on the facts surrounding COVID-19 and a brainstorming session for how we can continue to support Asian businesses through financially difficult times,” said Zhang. On a similar note, ASI plans on creating posters to post around the school, covering topics from ways to stay protected from the virus to sinophobia in U.S. history and today. These clubs are also providing spaces for students to talk about their experiences and feelings when it comes to coronavirus-related discrimination from other communities and their own.  

Even as news media continues to sensationalize and cause racist rhetoric to increase, it is important to note, as CPS officials did in their recent parent guidance letter, that “COVID-19 does not distinguish between race, nationality, or geographic borders.” During these times of uncertainty and fear, many Payton students agree that Chicago must uphold standards of acceptance and support communities that have been affected by this fear mongering.

Posters about hand washing from the CDC line the Payton bathroom walls. Photo by Mimi Hamada

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