How Racism is Changing the Face of COVID-19
This article was written by Bethany Morris, a content writer for the Immigration Advice
Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers based in the UK and Ireland.
The Western response to Coronavirus has become dominated by racialised blame games
from the media and government officials alike, fostering an increasingly hostile environment
for Asian communities across the globe. Hypocrisy in the Western response is also rife; as
the supposedly most ‘progressive’ nations in the world struggle to contain Covid and appear
conflicted about when to prioritise human life over economic stability, whilst countries that
find themselves the victims of Western criticism and racial prejudice are managing the
pandemic most effectively.
Since the outbreak reached the Western world, hate crimes against the Asian community
have risen. In the US, the Anti-Defamation League have been tracking racist online activity
which targets Asian communities, reporting that many platforms have seen material “linking
the coronavirus to racist and antisemitic slurs and memes”.
Away from the virtual world, this abuse has spilled over into reality. In London, Jonathon
Mok, a 23 year old Singaporean student, was assaulted in a racist attack and in the US, in
the past month alone, Asian-American organisations have reported almost 1,500 incidents
of racial abuse, coming just two months after the FBI assessed that hate crimes were likely
to rise across the country. In an open letter to Assistant Attorney General Eric S Dreiband,
16 Democratic senators urged the Trump administration to address this discrimination with
urgency and take swift action to ensure that the Asian community are protected from this
sharp surge in racially aggravated assaults.
As an increasing number of minorities come forward to share stories of how their lives,
safety and businesses have been impacted by the recent rise in hate crimes, it is important
to note that this is not the first time that an epidemic has elicited racialised responses. “The
Politics of Disease Epidemics”, a 2018 study, has analysed the impacts of politicised
responses to infectious outbreaks and their inherently negative impacts on marginalised
groups. It found that the narratives associated with outbreaks such as Ebola, the Zika virus
and SARS, largely reflect a “politics of blame, which typically attributes responsibility for the
sources of the outbreak to a cultural minority group”.
When assessing Government responses to Covid-19 and societal opinions towards the virus,
similar narratives have been peddled, even at the highest levels of Government, to deflect
blame towards the Asian community. This is particularly evident in the Trump
administration, with Trump himself continually referring to Covid-19 as the ‘Chinese Virus’
and John Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas, stating that “China is to blame” because
they eat “bats and snakes and dogs and things like that”.
Amidst the current situation in the US, discourse surrounding the origins of the virus is often
dominated by racist stereotypes and language that promotes separatism and ‘otherness’.
When speculation mounted that Covid-19 may have originated in Wuhan’s wet food
market, many used this as an excuse to attack Chinese culture - the Western perspective of which is typically exaggerated and warped to suit an agenda. Videos and images of Chinese
people eating animals began to circulate online, with obsessions over ‘bat soup’ heightening
and being blamed for the outbreak, despite this since being disproved. Such attitudes are
reminiscent of those mentioned in the New York Daily Tribune in 1854, describing Chinese
people as “uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond conception”, giving rise once again to
damaging Orientalist attitudes.
As racialised responses continue to dominate Western approaches, not only do incidents of
hate crime rise and US citizens suffer, but Chinese businesses in both the US and the UK feel
the impacts. Recent reports have suggested that in Birmingham, Manchester and London,
Chinese restaurant owners reported a fall of up to 50% in bookings pre-lockdown in the UK.
In New York, the Covid wave began to decimate Chinese businesses as early as March with
Chinese business owners in Manhattan, Flushing and the Sunset Park neighborhood in
Brooklyn reporting significant customer declines in January. Since mid-February, thousands
of merchants in Chinatown have reported sales drops between 30% to 80%.
In comparison to measures taken by places such as Vietnam and Cuba, the Western
response to Covid-19 is frankly pitiful and some would argue even criminally negligent. With
the UK Government initially showing a desire to adopt a ‘herd immunity’ approach and let
citizens ‘take it on the chin’, valuable time was wasted whilst airports remained open,
tracking and tracing was abandoned and the virus continued to spread throughout the
population. The UK is now at one of the highest death tolls in the world.
In the US, two days after the first diagnosed Covid case, Donald Trump bragged on air that
“we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China. It’s going to be just
fine.” To date, the US has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths in the entire
world, with Ron Klain, former Ebola response co-ordinator at the White House, stating that
“the US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous,
When we turn our attention elsewhere, the statistics are telling. In Cuba, reaction to the
virus was quick; a “prevention and control” plan was drawn up in January 2020 which
included preparing medical and quarantine facilities, training medical staff, and informing
the public about symptoms and appropriate precautions. On March 21 st , with just 21
confirmed cases, the Government announced a lockdown for vulnerable people, a ban on
tourists entering the country, plans for home-working and social distancing measures. To
date, Cuba has 1,783 confirmed cases and 77 deaths.
In Vietnam, almost four months after the first confirmed case, the country only has 288
confirmed cases and no reported deaths, despite having a population of an estimated 97
million. In 2003, Vietnam had one of the first cases of SARS and was praised for its swift and
successful management of the outbreak.
Compared to Western nations which so often criticise them, countries such as Vietnam and
Cuba have become some of the most successful on the planet when it comes to managing
the pandemic. As racism begins to dominate the discourse surrounding Covid-19, it is worth
remembering the sheer extent of Western hypocrisy, the current failures and mismanagement of the crisis, and how the countries finding themselves the victim of racial abuse from the West are shaping up to be the most successful in the containment of Covid-19.