Infectious Discrimination

by Ellyssa Jeong & Anya Lefkowitz, Centerfold Section Editors
graphic by Kaila Hanna & Emily Zhang

“Can’t Let It Go” isn’t a remix of an iconic Frozen song; rather, it’s a tradition in junior Valerie Goldstein’s history class where students share topics of frustration or annoyance. Yet, during what seemed to be a typical complaint symposium, Goldstein was taken aback by an outspoken classmate’s opinions on the recent outbreak of COVID-19.

“This kid went on a rant, saying how Chinese people are dumb and eat random wild animals, making jokes about how Asians look at bats and think about making soup out of them only to create a virus,” she said. 

Goldstein said other students nodded along with the tirade. The teacher calmed the class and eventually stopped the conversation, but as a Chinese American and the only Asian student in the class, Goldstein said she felt hurt by the student’s comments. 

Outside of class, Goldstein said that discriminatory phrases used to describe the coronavirus — “Chinese virus” or “Kung flu,” for example — are all too common.

“At South, there aren’t any direct slurs or anything, but rather subtle, social media comments or offhand sarcastic remarks that make you feel bad,” she said. “You can’t point to it directly and say it’s racist, which I think is worse because then it makes it easier for people to internalize that than listening to someone yell slurs at you.”

Since the start of the pandemic, both verbal and physical discrimination targetted at Asian Americans have increased drastically on a global scale.  

The New York Times reported that New York City resident Jiayang Fan has experienced the racism accompanying the coronavirus firsthand. She was verbally assaulted and cursed at while taking out the trash, simply because she was Chinese. The New York Times also reported that an Asian American teenager in California was wrongly accused of having COVID-19 and beaten on school grounds so severely that he had to go to the emergency room. 

In light of these racist attacks, Asian Americans have taken precautionary safety measures, said The New York Times. In addition, they found that a Facebook group was made for Asians in New York who are wary of taking the subway alone, and in the Washington, D.C. area, gun shop owners noticed an increase of first-time Asian American customers.


For Asian Americans, being associated with disease is nothing new. With the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the U.S. government quarantined incoming Asians and held inspections for life-threatening diseases such as smallpox and the bubonic plague as a way to justify their immigration ban on Asians. These inspections were done without consent or proof of sickness to justify the immigration ban on strictly Asians. A growing popular belief that Asians were more likely to carry diseases meant that by the 1920s, Asian immigrants were prohibited from entering New York City’s Ellis Island. Now, President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.”

It’s a scientific fact that the specific COVID-19 virus cannot be more contagious for a specific race, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School Scott Weiss said.

“[The virus] could have started anywhere and nothing about the virus is ‘Chinese,’ … I see the virus as an equal opportunity infector of all racial and ethnic groups,” he said.

When public figures openly target a specific group of people, it normalizes racism and xenophobia, junior Talia Raffel said. 

“When the leader of your country says that this is a ‘Chinese virus,’ a lot of people are going to believe that it’s China’s fault because of what Chinese people have done,” she said. “It tells people that it’s okay to be racist when it really isn’t okay, especially in times like these.”

Sophomore Frank Liu said that it is illogical to put an entire race at fault for any outbreak.

“People are saying that it’s the ‘Chinese virus’ because the Chinese government let the virus spread to the extent that it did,” he said. “Then, they should be calling it the ‘Chinese Communist Party virus.’”


Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak began in Wuhan, China, a 2016 video of a Chinese woman eating bat soup resurfaced online, taking social media by storm. People began to shame her and other wild animal consumers for their presumed culpability in the coronavirus pandemic.

Goldstein said that, especially in times of disaster, it is crucial to turn to reliable news sources. 

“People are saying that the virus was created by Chinese government workers. I see it all over social media,” she said. “Information is really important, not just for stopping racism and xenophobia, but also for staying safe.”

On social media, Goldstein said that she feels unsettled by her peers’ reactions to racist posts. 

“I saw this one video that a lot of people from our school liked despite it being clearly racist,” she said. “It had these children putting on some sort of skit, with two dressed as doctors and the other kids dressed as coronavirus, a spiky green ball, with cone-shaped rice-paddy hats that many Asian countries use and stereotypical Asian mustaches. A lot of people commented on how funny it was rather than how racist it was.”

Italy has suffered the most coronavirus deaths of any country without facing the same level of scrutiny over social media, Goldstein said.

“I’ve seen posts on social media where people are getting beat up because people are associating China with the virus and thinking that all Chinese people must be sick,” she said. “When it became a large problem in Italy, though, nobody was avoiding Italians or saying things like, ‘You’re Italian. Get away from me.’”

Media outlets exacerbate xenophobia by referring to the entire country of China when covering the coronavirus, Liu said.

“When you see negative coverage of the United States on the media, it’s almost never the United States as a whole, with statements such as ‘the United States did something.’ Instead, it’s always specific, with statements that are direct, such as ‘Trump did this.’ When the media is reporting on the situation in China, it’s referred to as an entire country: not ‘the Chinese government,’ but rather ‘China,’” he said. “This blurs the line between government and people, which are very different.”


Liu said that teenagers tend to resort to humor to cope with uncomfortable and challenging situations — just look to the countless memes about Zoom and ‘coronacation’ that have taken over the internet. Teenagers’ jokes about the coronavirus are not inherently malevolent, said Liu. 

“Teenagers like to make jokes or add humor to something that isn’t funny,” he said. “I’ve been hearing students mutter ‘corona’ under their breath, and I’ve heard jokes about this topic, but I don’t think any of the kids actually had bad intentions.”

Raffel, regardless, said that she doesn’t find these jokes funny. 

“It’s setting me and other Chinese descendants apart from the community and nearly blaming us. It’s very distancing, and it makes you angry because you know that it’s not your fault,” she said. “In times of crisis, it really brings to light how racism hasn’t been eradicated yet.”

Goldstein said that it’s important to combat the predominant issue, the virus itself, rather than to deprecate an entire race of people.

“You have an equal chance of getting infected no matter what race you are, so instead of discriminating against a group of people, we should all be working together to stop it,” she said. “The virus doesn’t discriminate, so why should you?”