COVID-19 and the racialization
of responsibility


by ashley miller


As COVID-19 spreads, so do the reports of harassment and violence against Asians and Asian Americans. Every day, my news feed is filled with reports of Asians being yelled at, spit on, or physically attacked – and, whether explicitly or not, blamed as carriers of disease.

When news of the coronavirus began spreading online, so did the memes, misinformation, and cruel jokes targeting Chinese food and culture. Posts circulating on social media claimed that Chinese people are dirty, disgusting, and “deserved” the virus because of “revolting” culinary habits. This type of language has been supported by inflammatory remarks from officials at the highest level of government. This rhetoric is not only offensive; it perpetuates xenophobia, institutionalized racism, and actual violence.



Discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans, however, is nothing new. The prejudices exposed by COVID-19 are symptomatic of a long history of demonizing Chinese people in the West, and demonstrate how in times of crisis, responsibility gets racialized.

"The prejudices exposed by COVID-19 are symptomatic of a long history of demonizing Chinese people in the West."


Antiquated ideas of “Yellow Peril”


Looking at recent episodes of anti-Asian prejudice in historical perspective, it’s important to note that the spread of COVID-19 hasn’t created these stereotypes – it has merely lifted the veil on age-old racist tropes associating Asian people with disease and contagion.

The anti-Asian prejudice we are seeing today echoes the “Yellow Peril” rhetoric of the 19th century, the theory that East Asians pose a serious threat to the “civilized” White nations in the West. In 1875, the Page Act removed the rights of Chinese immigrants to become U.S. citizens and prohibited immigration of most Chinese women. It became a policy precedent for subsequent immigration exclusion laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. The legislation aimed to contain the ‘problem’ of Chinese immigration, which was seen as a racial, economic, and cultural threat to America. It marked the first time in U.S. history a group was forbidden entry to America solely on the basis of race.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, which was renewed twice (and expanded to prevent all Chinese nationals, and then citizens of other Asian nations, from immigrating to America) wasn’t repealed until 1943. It reflected anti-Asian sentiment in America and was bolstered by racist rhetoric in a time when Chinatowns were stereotyped as “filthy in the extreme” and a “constant menace to the welfare of society.”

Throughout U.S. history, politicians have reshaped the meaning of “America” and, amid moral panics, re-drawn the boundaries of U.S. citizenship and social belonging. In the case of the systematic discrimination and exclusion of Chinese people, the narrative deeming Chinese people and spaces as “depraved” and “unsanitary” has been used to justify everything from federal legislation to outright violence, from the 153 anti-Chinese riots throughout the West Coast in 1870s and 1880s to the forcible quarantine and burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown in 1900.

Today, the racialization of coronavirus as an exotic foreign threat plays into this larger history of associating Chinese people with disease. When the outbreak began, one video that became particularly popular showed an Asian woman supposedly in Wuhan, eating bat soup in a restaurant. News reports and social media linked the “revolting footage” to the coronavirus outbreak, while the video posted on YouTube received comments such as “Chinese eat everything I swear” and “What is wrong with these people? Is there anything they won’t eat?” It turns out that the video was not filmed in Wuhan – or China at all.

This language contributes to a notion that Chinese people have uncivilized eating habits and singles out one group as carriers of disease – a type of othering that centers the White experience as “superior” or “pure.” While recent media coverage of coronavirus has revived stereotypes of Asian people as dirty and diseased, the relationship between xenophobia and public health discourse has been around for years.

"Today, the racialization of coronavirus as an exotic foreign threat plays into this larger history of associating Chinese people with disease. This language contributes to a notion that Chinese people have uncivilized eating habits and singles out one group as carriers of disease – a type of othering that centers the White experience as “superior” or “pure.”"


A history of existing prejudices getting medicalized


In times of panic, public health fears can be projected onto racial groups or other marginalized communities. And when existing prejudices get medicalized, they can also shape public policy.

In the 1980s, Haitian Americans were blamed for bringing HIV to the U.S – an idea that fit with the prejudices of the time, denouncing homosexuality and promiscuity for bringing the virus to America. In “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” writer Susan Sontag suggested that a disease itself can act as a metaphor, a reflection of the society through which it travels. For example, AIDS would not have ravaged America to the extent that it did if not for institutionalized homophobia, which inclined many Americans to see the disease as retribution for gay sex.

In more recent years, the 2009 swine flu pandemic was blamed on Mexican Americans and deployed shamelessly by anti-immigrant groups to promote their agenda: a Boston radio host referred to Mexican immigrants as “criminaliens” when speaking about swine flu, while a conservative talk show host advised Americans, “No contact anywhere with an illegal alien! And that starts in the restaurants… [where you] don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!” In 2014, the Ebola crisis turned into a similar epidemic of fear and hysteria. Much of the media coverage deployed language and imagery juxtaposing the “civilized” West with “uncivilized” Africa, stoked a fear of blackness, and was used to justify racist targeting and discrimination in the U.S.

"It is far easier to blame an already marginalized and often silenced “other” than to take any form of responsibility for the government’s mismanagement leading up to and during the current pandemic."

These xenophobic reactions are starkly similar to the way COVID-19 has exacerbated discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans today, providing a convenient scapegoat for a government trying to distract from its own ineptitude. Throughout his presidency, Trump has drastically reduced funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In response to COVID-19, he has pitted states against one another and blamed governors for the federal government’s failings, and, more recently, encouraged conservative activists to “liberate” themselves and gather in crowds to protest stay-at-home orders (a clear violation of health experts’ recommendations). Yet it is far easier to blame an already marginalized and often silenced “other” than to take any form of responsibility for the government’s mismanagement leading up to and during the current pandemic.



“But why can’t we call it the Chinese virus or the Wuhan virus?”


The World Health Organization (WHO) cautions against linking viruses to geographic locations, as giving a virus a geographical name can contribute to increased stigmatization of a country or particular group. Despite being advised otherwise by health officials, Trump has repeatedly and deliberately referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” Other prominent conservative politicians, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have continuously defended calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” or “Kung flu,” while denying any responsibility for Asians being the target of racist vitriol.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

While the virus did originate in China, whether intentional or not, these phrases perpetuate xenophobic policies and perceptions. As Asians experience racially-motivated harassment and violence across the Western world, it is exactly this kind of language that accentuates it and accelerates it. Language matters. Words carry weight. And when officials in positions of power insist on using discriminatory language, it normalizes it, seemingly giving permission for others to do the same. In this way, COVID-19 has been deployed as a tool to express discriminatory thoughts in a way that can be excused.

This language contributes to the spread of antiquated ideas that have associated Asian people with contagion for over a century. It is the same type of rhetoric that has been used to justify discriminatory policies throughout America’s history, devastating marginalized communities in the name of “national security.” As the racialization of responsibility allows the dominant group to bolster perceptions of disease as a foreign threat, it also perpetuates the notion that our priority as a nation should be to defend ourselves (or more specifically, White America) – rather than come together in collective effort against something that transcends borders.