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Coronavirus Has Not Reached Pittsburgh, but Fear and Racism are Spreading

Posted by Marian Lien on February 13, 2020

Over the last few weeks, I’ve watched anti-Asian sentiment spike not just around the country as China fights to contain the coronavirus on the other side of the world, but right here in Pittsburgh, in the city I call home.

The panic about a sudden, deadly virus can be understood and even expected. But this panic has exposed a deep-seated xenophobia in the West, and with it, a symptom of its own has surfaced: hostility toward East Asians.

Shortly after the first U.S. cases of the coronavirus were announced in February, backlash against the Pittsburgh Asian population began. A senior pedestrian of Asian origin with a protective face mask, was waiting by a city street corner, only to have a passerby try to pull the mask off and push her into oncoming traffic while shouting, “go back to China.”

A Pitt student who tried to attend class was taunted by her classmates to put on a mask so as to stop “spreading the virus.” She was not ill; but she was the only Chinese person in the class.

Retailers and restaurateurs serving Chinese and Asian cuisine talk of a negative psychosis setting in and affecting their business. Lunar New Year should be one of the busiest moments for Asian shops and restaurants, but this year businesses in Oakland and Squirrel Hill have reported a downturn of 20% to 40%.

As with 2002-3 SARS, this latest health epidemic is a reminder of the pervasive racism that can be traced as far back as the 19th century which deemed the Chinese populations in America to be inherently foreign, unhygienic and carriers of disease.

Worse yet, this time around, there is a new element to fan the wildfires of fear and disinformation about the coronavirus, and that is social media.

To prevent the actual spread of viruses, we’re told to cough into our sleeves. Wash our hands copiously. And practice good hygiene of not touching one’s face. But what can we do to stop the social contagion of xenophobic backlash online against Asians and Asian Americans?

Before posting or retweeting a comment, ask yourself: Would you be reacting the same way if this were an outbreak of disease from – name a European country? Why not react with the same urgency to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s report that the 2019-2020 Influenza outbreak in the U.S. alone is currently at 22-31 million cases and 12-30 million thousand deaths? In comparison there have been just 12 cases of confirmed coronavirus cases (no fatalities) in the U.S. and zero cases in Pennsylvania?

By asking these questions, you might be surprised that your attitude changes and you just might stop yourself from perpetuating the stigmatization of our neighbors and friends who happen to be a part of the Asian and Asian American community.

Marian Lien, a former director of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, is Director of Education for Inclusion and Global Awareness at St. Edmund’s Academy and is a member of the JCC Center for Loving Kindness Advisory Committee. She is serving her second term on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs in Pennsylvania and is the current board of trustees president for Organization of Chinese Americans, Pittsburgh Chapter. 

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