Countering Xenophobia During COVID-19

Emotions run high during times of uncertainty. Fear can bring out the worst in people.

New York City is a diverse metropolis – in cuisine, in entertainment, in culture and in population. For generations, people have come to New York, knowing it is a place where you can be whoever you choose to be with little to no question from others – but in times of need, like 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers tend to come together.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, something has changed. This virus has some individuals distraught and afraid to be near one another.

Jay, a Taiwanese college student in New York City and a good friend of mine, is one victim of COVID-19. He didn’t get the virus, but he has been on the receiving end of the fear, hysteria and xenophobia that has spread in the minds of some people here.

Two weeks ago, Jay was seated in a nearly empty C train, en route to his Brooklyn apartment from a meeting with his classmates when he was verbally and physically assaulted. Jay was sprayed with a disinfectant and slapped in the face for letting out a quiet cough on the train. Instead of stopping the assault or speaking up on Jay’s behalf, the other riders offered him only frowns and looks of disdain.

Jay waiting for a train on the platform.      photo courtesy of Ben Ohene

Jay is not alone. Incidents against Asians are becoming more common in NYC, as Chinatown activists reported in the weeks before New York State went on lockdown.

Anti-Asian discrimination impacts people of all genders and ages. Evelyn is a Chinese-American who was born in Massachusetts and moved to New York after receiving a job offer from a tech firm. Evelyn married a man she met through work and eight years later, the couple had a baby girl. Evelyn was picking up her 3-year old daughter from daycare earlier this month when she was verbally accosted by another mother for being “the cause” of the virus and was told to “go back to China.” Nearly in tears during their car ride home, Evelyn tried to explain to her daughter what just happened and why.

Karen, a Brooklyn-based artist from Korea, had a similar encounter this month when she was threatened by a group of middle-aged men while out walking her dog in a local park.

As for Jay, the hostility he received on that C train, led him to purchase a plane ticket and leave the country:

“Honestly, I feel that Americans don’t have the knowledge on how to prevent this kind of stuff. They just check the [news] headlines and don’t look deeper. I get looked at angrily even when I’m not coughing or sneezing. It is especially bad when entering a closed space. There’s a lot of insulting and cursing. I’ve got to say, being Asian in NYC is very uncomfortable right now.”

In one of the most diverse cities in the world, the rise in xenophobia since the start of the Corona outbreak is alarming. The Asian community has received an unfair amount of blame, but COVID-19 does not discriminate based on race or ethnicity.

This catastrophic virus has society severely panicked and anxious for answers, but now is not the time to turn on one another. Communities are organizing to support each other and keep their members safe, as the rise of mutual aid networks across the country are showing. As we face the unprecedented challenges before us all, we must do it together in love, not fear.