Three weeks ago, Trang Dong, a 21-year-old Vietnamese American, posted a video to TikTok, the short video sharing platform. In the clip, Dong and her cousin are slurping up the leftover broth from pho. The joke is, they’re both holding their spoons with their chopsticks.
In the last few days, Dong’s video has attracted several racist comments. “Where is the bat in your soups???” one TikTok user wrote. “Its corona time,” another posted, referring to the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, and has since infected more than 19,000 people, mostly in mainland China.
“They’re making a joke out of a pretty serious thing,” Dong says.
As officials work to contain the disease, which the World Health Organization (WHO) recently labeled a global public health emergency, anti-Asian racism and xenophobia have continued unabated. On 9gag, the meme- and GIF-sharing site, one user posted an image of a man with his tongue out, ogling a woman. He’s a coronavirus, and she’s “Chinese eating bat soup.” In a viral tweet, an account posted a video of a woman eating bat with the comment, “When you eat bats and bamboo rats and s--- and call it a ‘Chinese delicacy,’ why y’all be acting surprised when diseases like #coronavirus appear?” And some restaurants are suffering as people share false warnings that Chinese dishes could somehow harbor the virus.
Chinese people in Asia and Asian people around the world say they’ve been treated with suspicion since the virus made international headlines. Erin Wen Ai Chew, a 37-year-old entrepreneur with Chinese ancestry, told me about a recent experience in an Australian airport. Chew says a white woman eyed every Asian person passing by, especially those wearing face masks, as though searching for signs of disease. Chew purposefully coughed near the woman, who, she says, ran away, eyes wide with terror.
There are political repercussions, too. Despite little scientific evidence that restricting travel stops the spread of a novel virus, President Trump has banned foreign nationals who have traveled to China in the last 14 days from reentering the United States. This runs counter to WHO’s guidance, which discourages travel and trade bans, as they can make it harder to help nations respond to such outbreaks.
Only some outbreaks are racialized, says Roger Keil, a professor in the environmental studies department at York University, who studied the impact of SARS on the city of Toronto. Neither H1N1, which emerged in North America, nor mad cow disease, which primarily affected the United Kingdom, generated a racial or ethnic backlash of this magnitude. Yet, diseases that originate in China, like SARS and the new coronavirus, or in Africa — remember the fears about Ebola? — consistently correlate with xenophobia.
“With this new virus, something was triggered that is always latently there, under the surface, which is this fear of the other and the idea that bad things come from elsewhere,” Keil says. It also echoes old prejudices. In the 19th century, Europeans feared a so-called “yellow peril,” brought about by “primitive” people with emerging global power. In the US, there was a specific notion that Asian people carried disease, the Los Angeles Times reported.
To combat racism, people in the public eye, including politicians and media outlets, have to begin by uncoupling the disease from its origin point, Keil says.
Nguyen, a Los Angeleno, thinks coronavirus could be a catalyst for social change. “Growing up, I’ve experienced a lot of microaggressions. Like, ‘Oh are you eating dog?’” she says. “A lot of people don’t view microaggressions as racism. They think it’s a joke.” Now, people are speaking up, online and off.
For now, Keil says, “there are two things to remember every morning when you get up: wash your hands and don’t be racist.”