As Coronavirus Spreads, Asian Americans Report Spike in Racism

Businesses in Chinatowns across the state, including this one in San Francisco, have seen fewer customers in recent months. Photo credit: iStock.

Several weeks ago Carl Chan went to a store in Oakland.

Chan felt like he had to cough — he suffers from serious allergies — and raised his arm to cover his mouth. He then saw another customer standing near him bolt out of the shop.

“That hurt,” said Chan, who is also president of Oakland’s Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve seen people coughing that are not Chinese, and it’s no problem. But any time you see myself or another Asian coughing, there’s a strong reaction.”

As coronavirus spreads throughout the United States, acts of racism and xenophobia toward Asian Americans—including micro-aggressions, workplace discrimination, business avoidance, harassment, threats and physical assault—have also increased.

According to a new report prepared by faculty members at San Francisco State University’s Asian American Studies Department, there were more than 1,000 reported cases of xenophobia toward Chinese communities and Chinese Americans between January 28 and February 24—a rate of 37 known cases per day.

And as these hate incidents continue, experts and community leaders fear that the physical and mental health outcomes of Asian Americans will be adversely affected.

“There’s a lot of documentation that racism by itself is a stressor that leads to worse physical health outcomes,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), a coalition of 40 community-based organizations in the Greater Los Angeles area. “We do expect there to be impacts. I think it could get worse … with social, emotional and economic impacts as well.”

One of the most noticeable impacts of coronavirus-related xenophobia is the drop in businesses in Chinatowns across the state, said Chan. He informally surveyed Chinese small business owners around the San Francisco Bay Area and found that on average, they have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their business in recent months.

Even if the threat of coronavirus recedes, Chan said it could take businesses years to recover. After the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, he said, it took businesses in Oakland’s Chinatown more than a year to bounce back, which creates a tremendous amount of stress on the families and the community. So in an attempt to insulate employees from these pressures, Chan said many small business owners are taking out personal loans or are mortgaging their homes to keep their shops and restaurants open.

Chan said that racism and xenophobia have occurred in more direct ways as well.

Members of the community often call him about incidents that they’re too afraid to report to the police, he said, including an older Chinese woman wearing a mask who was punched in the face. In addition to the mental stress caused by these incidents, Chan said it impacts the physical health particularly for seniors, many of whom now won’t go outside for walks or to do tai chi in the parks, for fear of being accosted or assaulted.

Kulkarni, meanwhile, said A3PCON held a press conference last month about a Los Angeles middle school student who was allegedly physically attacked and accused of having coronavirus because he’s Asian American, an incident also led to anxiety and trauma. In addition, she said that social media attacks against Asian Americans have become common, and also cases of workplace discrimination and unofficial quarantines or bans, including professional conferences banning speakers of Asian descent.

“People are getting misinformation, and they are unfortunately relying on racial biases that they might have to dictate their behavior,” she said.

While all residents of the state may be dealing with increased stress as a result of coronavirus, low-income populations and communities of color may be disproportionately affected since they often have less access to mental health care.

But Kulkarni said that help is available. One of A3PCON’s member organizations, Special Service for Groups, is providing free counseling for anyone who’s reporting mental health strain as a result of growing racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans, she said, and Los Angeles County’s 211 hotline for health and human service referrals is making sure those impacted are connected with the organization.

“We want to make sure that racism isn’t a contagion like any virus,” Kulkarni said, “that it doesn’t spread with the same speed and ferocity as the coronavirus.”

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