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In the Midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Xenophobia Flares Up

On March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Californians—all 40 million of us—to stay in our homes as much as possible in the coming weeks as the state confronts the escalating coronavirus outbreak. As of March 24, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a total of 1,931 cases in California as a result of the pandemic.

In his prime-time talk to Californians, Newsom said that there has been unacceptable xenophobia and racism directed at Asians and Asian-Americans amid the outbreak. He noted that 27% of the state’s population is comprised of individuals who were born in another country, and vowed aggressive enforcement against xenophobia.

“…I just want folks to know we are better than that, we are watching that, we are going to begin to enforce that more aggressively,” said the governor.

Steven Taylor, author of the book “Psychology of Pandemics,” said in a recent article in The Hill, “It’s [xenophobia] an important but complicated issue, and this racism or blaming of particular groups of people has happened with every pandemic and serious outbreak. Heading back as far as we know…we’re socialized to evolve in small groups. And because most of the important infectious diseases that wiped out groups of people were brought in by foreigners, if you think about Europeans settling in the Americas [they] brought influenza and smallpox, which wiped out the indigenous people.” So, we as humans, he notes, can become fearful that bad things come from “elsewhere.”

History confirms this type of behavior. Atlantic Magazine reports that during the 1853 yellow-fever epidemic in the United States, European immigrants, who were perceived to be more vulnerable to the disease, were the primary targets of stigmatization. During the SARS outbreak, which originated in China, East Asians bore the brunt. When the Ebola outbreak emerged in 2014, Africans were targeted. For this reason, the World Health Organization, which has overseen the global response to the coronavirus outbreak, opted against denoting a geographic location when officially naming the new virus. “Stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than the virus itself,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, stated recently.

Pandemics are frightening and fear can sometimes bring out our worst qualities. When politicians and others use their public platforms to spread toxic messages and hurtful stereotypes, it can lead to increased discrimination and racism toward Asians and Asian Americans and activate intergroup violence.

“We don’t want to label and stigmatize people in their communities,” said UC San Diego infectious disease epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee in Undark, a magazine exploring the intersection of science and society. “We have a history of doing that.”

But Strathdee noted that sensationalized stories persist in news and on social media, where “misinformation spreads faster than the virus itself,” and she stressed the value of awareness that exaggerated or inflammatory stories are “part of the problem rather than the solution.”

On a more positive note, Taylor says he believes we will see a reduction in racism as Americans begin to understand that the virus does not discriminate. “It’s going to become everyone’s problem. In some ways, that could be the only good thing that comes out of this interaction: that it might serve to pull communities together to work together to deal with the problem,” he said.

ThisWeek@UCSanDiego took the opportunity to ask Becky Petitt, UC San Diego Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, questions regarding the current rise of xenophobia and what the UC San Diego community can do.

Q: As the coronavirus epidemic has spread, so has discrimination. What message do you have for our UC San Diego community?

A: Coronavirus fears are, indeed, fueling a rise in xenophobia—the dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries—and discrimination both online and in other interactions. UC San Diego is home to many international students, faculty and staff, some of whom are from China. Anti-Asian bigotry, ostracizing and scapegoating are deeply offensive and very painful. Our UC San Diego community members deserve better. We can and should be better than this.

Q: As the outbreak and concern widen in the United States, how should our campus community respond when they witness bias and discrimination?

A: Now is the time to sincerely engage our Principles of Community. If you witness xenophobia, online or in other spaces—interrupt it and denounce it every time. Stand up for each other, and insist that we extend the respect and dignity we all deserve. In addition to interrupting bias when and where you see it, we encourage you to also report it to The Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), the unit that works to resolve concerns, and investigates known facts to determine if university policies have been violated.

There are difficult days ahead. If we are able to realize that we are in this together and that the virus is the enemy, there is a chance that this global crisis can help us see our common humanity and bring out the best in each of us.

Q: Many of us are home now, likely spending more time watching television, using social media and talking to people. What can we do to become more educated and to stop discrimination and misinformation about the coronavirus epidemic?

A: It is most unfortunate that explicit xenophobia and racism are increasingly visible in our public discourse. The ability to share this hateful content via social networking platforms increases the audience and can reinforce prejudice over time. I want to encourage our campus community members to be more careful with our words and actions. Now is the time to support each other and be more concerned about our collective well-being and to intentionally promote a climate of care.

For accurate, up-to-date coronavirus information from UC San Diego, visit coronavirus.ucsd.edu.