Students Confront Growing Coronavirus Hysteria

As the death toll of the Coronavirus rises into the thousands, many across the Western world have let their hysteria get the best of them. According to Vox, there have been more than 1,500 deaths caused by the virus, though almost all of the deaths have been within China, and more than half within the province of Hubei. Despite this, many in America and Europe have become susceptible to misinformation and fear mongering. According to Professor Bogoch of the University of Toronto, who specializes in global outbreaks, “The risk of acquiring this infection outside of Hubei, and, truly outside of China is remarkably low.” As news outlets rush to capitalize on people’s fears, the public response has unfortunately meshed with America’s undercurrent of xenophobia. This fear has distracted from the real devastation that the virus has caused within China, and in many ways takes away from the struggle of those dealing with the virus; it centers Western experiences and Western lives while doing nothing to help the families that have lost loved ones or to prevent infection in those actually at risk.

Within the last few months numerous cases of anti-Chinese comments have risen alongside the growing fear of the Coronavirus. NPR’s Maria Godoy, in a recent interview on Weekend Edition, described accounts of Asian Americans who were verbally harrassed on the street due to fears that they may have the Coronavirus, as well as posts online urging people “not to eat Chinese food.” These comments play into a larger history of anti-Chinese sentiment that stretches from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 into the present. Godoy noted that public fear has gotten so bad that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention put out a statement urging people to not “let panic guide their actions,” and “not to assume that anyone has the coronavirus.” She went on to point out that people probably would not be reacting this way if the virus was from a European country.

This pattern of misinformation and racist generalizations is what caused the Resident Assistants of Asia House to host an informational session which, according to third-year RA Akira Di Sandro, was meant as “a preventive measure against possible negative attitudes towards Chinese students.” She said that the event was combined with a house meeting, which usually has low attendance, however “over 20 students came, which is high attendance for a house meeting.” Akira went on to explain that throughout the session the RAs talked about the nature of the outbreak, and emphasized the fact that the deaths are concentrated in specific regions of China, mainly in Hubei province, which goes against the generalization that all students from China, or who have visited China, would have been in contact with the virus.

The RAs also turned their attention to the students in the room, asking them what they’ve heard about the virus as well as if they’ve heard negative comments. ​

“Nobody said that they heard anything specifically, but everyone seemed engaged.” In Akira’s own experience she did not hear any negative comments, however she was aware of racist jokes and memes on the internet which targeted Asian Americans, and noted that “When I heard about the outbreak I was worried about the xenophobia that would come from it. Comments can pass as jokes but they’re still stigmatizing.” 

As we talked, Akira brought up a secondary goal of the meeting, which was to bring together the often separate groups within Asia House. Recently, Asia House has transitioned from being interest-based to solely identity-based housing, meaning that occupants have to be Asian or of Asian ancestry. Though this move has brought more cohesion within the house, Akira mentioned a rift between Asian American students and international students. Akira went on to say that “the communities within Asia House differ based on family history and experience, but there isn’t tension, however, the community is also not cohesive.” Akira explained that oftentimes house activities don’t attract international students, and the RAs have made an effort to “make activities more intentional and inclusive,” like the Coronavirus awareness meeting, which aimed to spread information as well as bring together international and Asian American students. The RAs hope that having conversations and keeping students informed will help bolster good relations and a united Asian community on campus.