CIANA Explains: Why the Coronavirus Is Not An Excuse for Racism


The recent outbreak of the coronavirus, originating in Wuhan, China, has caused a lot of fear and anxiety. It has also triggered xenophobia against Chinese immigrants in the United States that mirrors discrimination they have faced since the 1800s. Understanding the ongoing health crisis, and how to properly react to it, both require understanding the history of Chinese immigrants in the U.S., and why racist attitudes against them are not the solution.

A Brief History of Chinese Immigrants in the United States

There is no disputing that Chinese immigration has a long and fraught history in the United States. Dating back to the 19th century, manual laborers from China entered this country and migrated to the West Coast in search of work. These laborers found employment in a number of fields, including agriculture, mining, railroad construction, in addition to other low-skill jobs.

Despite Chinese immigrants’ urge to find work,Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in order to limit and prevent the entry of Chinese migrants into the country. As a result of its passing, Chinese migration decreased significantly. Fortunately, the amendments made to the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 removed restrictions for non-European immigrants.

In addition to allowing more migrants to enter the country, including those from China, these amendments also created employment programs for skilled workers.

The population of Chinese immigrants in the United States has grown tremendously since 1980, according to a report from the Migration Policy Institute. Over the past 40 years, the population has increased nearly seven times in the present day, and reaching a peak of about 2.5 million within the last two years.

This may be due to the United States being the top destination for Chinese immigrants, making up almost 27 percent of the more than 12 million Chinese living outside of their home country, according to a mid-2019 study from the United Nations Population Division.

According to the 2010 Census, the Asian population in this country represents the third largest foreign-born group living in the United States. This is a tremendous change from 1980, where Chinese immigrants were not even in the top ten largest foreign-born groups. With the 2020 Census rapidly approaching, it will likely not come as a surprise to see the number of Chinese immigrants rise dramatically.

Why are these figures important?

Many reactions to the sudden novel coronavirus outbreak, especially those online, have been rooted in fear and racism, both intentional and unintentional. A notable incident came from the University of California at Berkeley’s health center regarding a graphic that was posted on their Instagram account. The account, Be Well Cal, posted an image about “managing fears and anxiety around coronavirus.”

Among the “common reactions” to the virus listed were anxiety, social withdrawal, and xenophobia. This since-removed post faced immediate backlash from Instagram users for normalizing prejudice against foreign-born individuals as a valid reaction to the ongoing outbreak. That prompted the University of California to respond on the matter and apologize. Nevertheless, many individuals are still making racist and xenophobic comments on the Chinese population, both inside and outside our country.

The incident in California was not the only one filled with potentially xenophobic intentions. A prestigious music school in Rome suspended students from East Asia amid the coronavirus outbreak, and a French newspaper issued a “Yellow Alert” in a poor attempt to educate citizens on the outbreak.

The sudden and widespread outbreak of the coronavirus does not justify the use of anti-Chinese propaganda and is entirely unacceptable.

Facts About the Virus

2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a virus that was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness. Human coronaviruses, as defined by Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are common viruses throughout the world that commonly cause mild to moderate illness. Seven different coronaviruses exist that infect people and make them sick. The 2019-nCoV virus was first detected in Wuhan, China. It is currently unclear how easily this virus is spreading between people.

CDC states that coronaviruses are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cats, and bats. In the case of 2019-nCoV, the virus was able to evolve and spread to humans.

So far, the virus has killed over 900 people worldwide, the majority in China. More than 80,000 people have been affected in countries across the world. There have also been a few dozen confirmed cases of the 2019-nCoV in a variety of U.S. states, including California, Massachusetts, Washingston, Arizona, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

As of March 1, there is one confirmed case of coronavirus in New York City. Testing kits that arrived in New York in late February will make testing, diagnosing, treating, and preventing spread of the virus within the state more timely and efficient.

According to Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, all 11 US patients are “doing well” and “the ones who were sicker have improved.”

Precautions are currently in place to restrict travel to and from China. Australia, Canada, Egypt, Finland, France, and Germany, among other countries, each have their own airline restrictions which are clearly outlined here, courtesy of Bloomberg.org.

The United States has also fully implemented strict travel restrictions that apply to foreign nationals as well as US citizens. The restrictions will not allow anyone who has visited China within the last two weeks to enter the country. On top of that, US citizens who have been in China’s Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, are subject to a mandatory quarantine of up to 14 days.

By screening and quarantining all returning US citizens, the HHS, or Department of Health and Human Services, can accurately monitor and track the virus.

Prevention of the 2019-nCoV

There is currently no vaccine to prevent coronavirus. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus.

The CDC will distribute 200 test kits for Wuhan coronavirus to domestic labs and another 200 test kits to international labs. Each kit is reported to perform between 700 and 800 patient samples. This will allow individual states to announce their own confirmed cases, rather than having to wait for confirmation from the CDC itself, which was previously the only lab in the United States capable of testing for the novel coronavirus.

While it may not be as simple as “avoiding exposure,” the CDC has listed a few everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of the respiratory viruses.

What You Should Do

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

  • If soap and water are not ready available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

What You Should Not Do

  • Do not travel to China

  • Do not use facemasks as per CDC’s recommendation

  • Do not show prejudice to people of Asian descent out of fear of this new virus. Do not assume that someone of Asian descent is more likely to have the 2019-nCoV

We at CIANA empathize with CDC’s last point. We stand against racism and xenophobia, just as we have since our founding in 2006. We must treat everyone in this country as though they belong here-- because they do.

If you have any questions or concerns about the current outbreak, the CDC is updating their website daily with the latest information and advice for the public. More information on how to get in contact with experts at CDC can be found below:

Note: This piece has been updated to reflect more accurate number of coronavirus cases throughout the world, in the U.S., and in New York City since its initial publication, as well as to include preventative measures currently being taken.

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