How the Pandemic Exacerbates Anti-Asian American Racism, and What It Means for Reproductive, Racial, and Health Justice for All

[Featured image: Roozbeh Rokni via Flickr/Creative Commons]

Jon Wong

By Jon Wong, If/When/How Program and Operations Associate

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a typical May for me might have included attending a number of screenings at CAAMfest (San Francisco’s annual Asian American film and media festival), eating copious amounts of dim sum with friends, or spending some relaxing outdoors time reading a novel by an Asian author. All of this would be my pre-pandemic “normal” in honor and celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

However, that sense of normalcy has been cast aside during this pandemic, which has been especially acute for Asian American communities. While most people living in the United States have seen their lives dramatically altered over the last two months as stay-at-home orders swept through the nation, the pandemic began taking a toll on Asian American communities even earlier. 

Since the news of the novel coronavirus spread across the globe in January, Asian Americans have suffered the brunt of racism and racist fears over the spread of the virus. Early on, we saw evidence of  dramatic decreases in business for Asian restaurants, especially Chinese restaurants, based on false fears that COVID-19 could be spread through food or –somehow — by people who’d had no contact with those who’d contracted the virus, just because they are Asian American. These racist fears over the virus escalated to racist attacks on Asian Americans themselves, including the verbal abuse of health care workers and even the stabbing of an Asian American family.

While thankfully I have not been the target of repeated racism during this pandemic, I  know firsthand what it’s like to have racist remarks hurled at me specifically because of the anti-Asian American racism exacerbated by the coronavirus. It happened when I opened a dating app to  chat with other people and got a message asking me if I was Chinese. When I responded affirmatively, the person told me to “STAY HOME” in all caps, and then promptly blocked my profile.

But as I noted earlier: while we’re seeing incidents of anti-Asian American racism escalate right now, this is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, it is unfortunately just the latest in a string of anti-Asian American racism, especially when it comes to health care and the spread of disease. As PBS reports, the history of seeing Asians and Asian Americans as unclean and dirty goes as far back as the 1800s, including the racist trope of the “yellow peril” of supposedly dirty Chinese looking like rats coming to take American jobs, and seeing FIlipinos as a “contaminated race” in the American colonial era of the Philippines.

This history of anti-Asian racism has even shown itself specifically in political battles over abortion access, including nefarious sex-selective abortion bans that rely on racist stereotypes about Asian American families. As the Guttmacher Institute has highlighted, sex-selective abortion bans mainly target Chinese, Indian, and Korean Americans in a racist mistrust of their ability to make decisions about their pregnancies, and in 2013 were the second most often proposed abortion restriction in the country. To fight these racist, xenophobic attacks on Asian American communities, our friends at National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago School of Law, and the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) program at the University of California, San Francisco have released a report on the racist myths of sex-selective abortion bans.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has served to resurface these kinds of long-held racist fears of Asian Americans and our perceived threats to public health. In the larger scheme of things, it’s one of many facets of systemic racism that have been exposed in painfully raw forms during this pandemic. We see this with the disproportionate impacts of the virus on Black communities and families, who often work essential jobs and lack the access to health care than many white families have. Similar systemic racism in our health care system and overall economy has also disproportionately harmed Indigenous and Latinx communities across the country as well.

So during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this May, I’ll remember my Asian American predecessors who struggled, but persisted, in a hostile environment among racist accusations that we are dangerous and dirty. I’ll pay attention to how systemic racism has disproportionately hurt people of color across the country during this pandemic and resolve to change these systems. I’ll do whatever I can so all people, especially the people of color essential employees working in the front lines of this pandemic, have the health care access they need so not only can they decide if, when, and how to define, create, and maintain their families, but also can survive this pandemic.

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