Combating Coronavirus Racism

On Feb. 1, the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCov) made national headlines as it infected one patient in Massachusetts. This patient, a University of Massachusetts Boston student from Wuhan, China where the virus was first identified, highlights the degree to which this virus has spread across the globe. At publication time, 2019-nCov has infected more than 40,000 people and taken the lives of over 1,000 others, many of whom had fought tirelessly to combat its spread.

In an opinion piece last week, contributing writer Jia Jia Zhang ’22, a Wuhanese American, highlighted the degree to which Asian Americans, specifically Chinese Americans, have been the targets of xenophobic and racist comments, rhetoric and jokes both in-person and online. It is despicable that people have exploited this tragedy as a means to justify xenophobia. Taking this into consideration, the Editorial Board urges the college to take steps to support those who may be directly affected by the racism and xenophobia fueled by this viral outbreak.

In the United States alone, a wave of hateful anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment brewing from the virus’s outbreak demonstrated severe implications for Asians across the country in the past month. In New York, a woman wearing a face mask was brutally assaulted in a subway station and called “diseased” by her attacker. In Los Angeles, residents reported racist comments directed towards Asian passengers from TSA agents, the Los Angeles Times reported. Even Wilbur Ross, the current U.S. commerce secretary, blatantly and ignorantly touted this outbreak as an opportunity to bring back jobs from China to the United States.

Colleges, unfortunately, have not been immune from this trend of xenophobia. As Zhang mentioned in her op-ed, the University of California, Berkeley recently released an infographic about 2019-nCov on its official Instagram page that cited xenophobia as a “normal reaction” to the viral outbreak. While the university ultimately apologized for this racist gaffe, it is just one indication of how the xenophobic atmosphere fueled by this epidemic has placed colleges at the forefront of the fight against the racism dealt to international and domestic Chinese communities.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are more than 369,000 international Chinese students currently studying in the United States, making up the largest portion of students from a single country. Fears of racist backlash on college campuses have led many students, including those not of Chinese descent, to re-evaluate the role that they play in their college communities. Reports have shown that hundreds of students in college and universities across the United States have been forced into isolation in their dorm rooms by their college administrations in an attempt to prevent potential outbreak on campuses. While quarantine is a reasonable response to the threats of 2019-nCov, college administrators must find a way to balance these safety measures with the threats that global panic and xenophobia have on the livelihoods of students. In a piece from The New York Times, a Princeton University student reported being “prescribed” isolation by his roommates, despite being cleared by the university to attend his courses. Evidently, as the coronavirus has highlighted, there is a fine line between well-intentioned safety measures and camouflaged racism. The intricacy of this distinction in the context of this virus can potentially detrimentally impact the dynamics of a college community.

As a result, colleges and universities across the United States face a delicate balancing act to mitigate the risk of 2019-nCov while working to combat xenophobia against Chinese and Asian students.

According to an email sent by Dean of Students Liz Agosto on Jan. 28, there are no reported cases of the virus at the college and the risk of transmission in our community remains low. Still, the college must work to promote an environment of inclusivity to ensure that students of all backgrounds feel welcome in the context of this outbreak.

Other colleges and universities have taken the lead in encouraging their communities to recognize the harm that the xenophobic outcry prompted by the virus has on Asian students. In an email sent out by the administration of Syracuse University, the college’s students, faculty and staff were told to be respectful and inclusive to Asian community members as a result of the outbreak. While the Amherst administration’s 2019-nCov notification email was informative, it made no mention of the xenophobia faced by millions of international and Asian American students in the United States, impugning our college’s dedication to an inclusive environment.

Yet, the task of fighting xenophobia should not be placed on the shoulders of the administration alone. The rise of 2019-nCov has led to a plethora of harmful memes and jokes regarding the virus on social media. Despite the proliferation of anti-Asian rhetoric related to the outbreak on social media, students must consider whether their participation in these harmful jokes may hurt those who are directly or indirectly affected by the virus. Both the college and students must think deeply about their role in this outbreak and the level of support, or lack thereof, that they provide to students who may be affected by the racist offshoots of this virus.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 13; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0)