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The coronavirus pandemic has made its way to nearly every country around the world and left devastation in its wake in a matter of six months.
Though the virus has indiscriminately infected millions globally, more than 30% of Americans have witnessed someone blaming people of Asian descent for the coronavirus, according to an Ipsos survey conducted in late April.
President Donald Trump has been no exception, given his penchant to refer to the coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus,” or more ungraciously, “Kung Flu,” a play-on-words referring to the Chinese martial art of Kung Fu.
Experts on Asian American culture and studies told Business Insider that while the disrespectful moniker could perpetuate dangerous microaggressions against Asian Americans, it also works as a diversion from the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus in the US.
The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into an unprecedented reality as countries around the globe grapple with the disease.
Researchers say that the novel coronavirus (formerly known as nCoV-2019) likely first cropped up in humans around the Huanan Seafood Market — a wet market located in the city of Wuhan in the Chinese province of Hubei — with the first dozens of cases detected sometime late last year.
In a little more than six months, the coronavirus pandemic has left devastation in its wake, with more than 12 million infections worldwide as the global death toll surpassed 550,000.
On February 11, the World Health Organization identified the novel coronavirus as SARS-CoV-2, and the respiratory disease it causes as COVID-19. A month later, on March 11, the WHO officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, as the coronavirus made its way onto nearly every country around the world.
While previous pandemics and epidemics have taken on the name of its place of origin, thus resulting in the virus’s initial moniker of the “Wuhan coronavirus,” that perpetuates a dangerous stigma pinned upon the people in that place.
Though the virus has indiscriminately infected millions globally, more than 30% of Americans have witnessed someone blaming people of Asian descent for the coronavirus, according to an Ipsos survey conducted in late April for the Center for Public Integrity.
US President Donald Trump and some White House officials also have a penchant for calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus,” or more ungraciously, “Kung Flu,” a play-on-words referring to the Chinese martial art of Kung Fu.
Weijia Jiang, an Asian American reporter for CBS News, tweeted in March that an unnamed White House used the racist term, “Kung Flu,” to her face.
After being asked if he found the term offensive at a press conference the next day, Trump brushed off the remark, claiming that Asian Americans wouldn’t be treated negatively by calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” or “Kung Flu.”
However, reports of verbal and physical abuse against Asian Americans have emerged over the duration of the pandemic as some people find misplaced blame on them for the coronavirus spread.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), a civil rights organization, started a website called Stand Against Hatred, where Asian Americans can self-report instances of racism and microaggressions on a public platform.
John C. Yang, president and executive director of AAJC, said this type of language perpetuated instances of “bullying, harassing, or otherwise belittling and discriminating Asian Americans” in a number of reports.
“That term plays on a racist stereotype in itself and is being used to stigmatize a community regarding a medical issue that all of the world should be rallying around [solving],” Yang told Business Insider. “We should not be trying to find terms that alienate communities and harms communities even further than the health crisis that we are already in.”
“Why resort to this terminology when you’re talking about a pandemic while we’re trying to unite the country to fight the pandemic?” Yang continued. “Health experts, medical experts all agree that we should refer to this as COVID-19. Terms that deviate from that have the ability to stigmatize communities.”
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It’s a ploy seen a number of times in US history, tapping into the “Yellow Peril” discourse of anti-Asian sentiment that prompted racist legislation like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, according to Michelle N. Huang, an assistant professor of English and Asian American studies at Northwestern University.
“[Trump’s] language normalizes the racist association between Asian bodies and disease, and emboldens violence against Asian Americans,” Huang wrote in an email to Business Insider. “This is particularly nefarious given Asian Americans account for a disproportionate number of essential workers in healthcare and food supply — from doctors to restaurant delivery workers.”
Trump revived the terms “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu” during his first in-person rally since the pandemic began in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20.
Upon hearing the term once again, Jason Oliver Chang, Director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, said he thought “it was dangerous and sad.”
“It’s sad because it shows how little he cares about the consequences of the pandemic or any kind of harsh awareness of the harsh reality that people face,” Chang told Business Insider.
He added, “It’s sad, too, because this is the only tactic he knows to galvanize support, as fewer and fewer people are convinced by this, he will become more and more vitriolic as a result his core supporters will be more and more aggressive.”
At a press conference following Trump’s rally in Tulsa, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the reason why the president continually decides to bring up the terms “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu” is to assign blame where he believes it is due: China.
“The President’s only defense for his racism is that his ideas, words, and deeds are not racist if they’re right,” Chang said. “The question is not if he knows that his actions are racist, but is racism a problem for him. The answer is no.”
“For people ready to assign blame for the economic and personal hardship, it may be easier to blame a diabolical plot by the Communist Chinese government to spark a global viral infection than it is to believe that American leaders have given up on their core responsibility organize life-saving responses to the pandemic and have made the disease many orders of magnitude worse,” he continued.
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Huang echoed Chang’s sentiment, saying that placing “emphasis on the ‘Chinese’ origins of the coronavirus frames the virus as an outside threat, rather than a domestic one.”
“But it is a domestic public health crisis: the United States government that has failed to stem the spread of the virus, we have the most recorded cases, and the numbers continue to climb,” Huang wrote.
She added calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” or “Kung Flu” will only incentivize people to view Asian Americans as foreign threats, as well as distract from the “disproportionate number of deaths and infection rates among Black, indigenous, and Latinx people within the United States.”
“This is a global pandemic and public health crisis with devastatingly asymmetrical effects on minoritized peoples,” Huang wrote. “Attempting to shift blame to China via a juvenile pun about martial arts is a diversion, one meant to imply China is responsible for the Trump administration’s disastrous handling of the pandemic.”
Researchers have found that the outbreak in New York, one of the US epicenters of the coronavirus, mainly originated from travelers from Europe.
Early on in the pandemic, Italy emerged as one of the hardest-hit countries by the coronavirus aside from the US and China, mostly due to its older population who were more susceptible to the virus.
Grace Kao, a professor of sociology at Yale University, said, at the start of the pandemic, people were scared to go to shops and restaurants. However, the businesses that took a harder economic hit and loss of foot traffic were Asian American amid coronavirus-fueled xenophobia.
“There was never fear of going to an Italian restaurant, even though there were lots of cases in Italy, so there’s no association with somehow an Italian being sick and then transferring that to Italian Americans or Italian American businesses,” Kao told Business Insider.
“It’s easy for them to make that association because Asian Americans are not seen as actually American, no matter how long we’ve been in this country,” she added, drawing on her own experience of how she sponsored her Canadian husband but people assume she is the one who immigrated to the US.
“It’s just something that every Asian American faces, that we can never quite be seen as an actual American, which means that we’re always treated as such,” Kao said. “And so anytime there’s some kind of conflict with that part of the world, I think it just raises a real fear.”
In the midst of fear, however, Kao said she does believe that an after-effect of such treatment can prompt solidarity and mobilize Asian Americans and other minorities to fight the stigma.
“This might lead to more political activism,” Kao said. She added that it could result in a “more pan-ethnic identity where Asian Americans might think of themselves in alignment with other Asian American ethnic groups, “because that’s what the hate crimes bring out is just, it doesn’t matter if you’re Chinese or not, you have to have an Asian face of any of this happening to you.”
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