COVID-19 and The Rise of Asian Hate Crimes

The current pandemic of COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus, has caused a sharp increase in hate crimes against Asians around the world. The virus originated in Wuhan, China which incited politicians like President Donald Trump to openly use the term ‘Chinese Virus’ to describe the current situation, enticing more xenophic comments and re-tweet responses from individuals and politicians. When asked about intentionally using this particular language, Trump said, “It’s not racist at all...it comes from China, that’s why.”[1] On March 24, 2020 President Trump stated that he was going to stop calling the virus the ‘Chinese Virus’, stating, “everyone knows it came out of China, but I decided we shouldn't make any more of a big deal out of it”.[2] 

 

Xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating are, unfortunately, tied to the panic and uncertainty of pandemics. During the 1876 outbreak of smallpox in San Francisco, all homes in Chinatown were fumigated to destroy the “foul and disgusting vapors” of the “‘unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinamen’”.[3] Referring to the 1918 influenza pandemic as the “Spanish flu” or 2012 Coronavirus outbreak as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) stigmatizes those infected and promotes an association between foreigners and disease, which, scholars argue, can be manipulated to promote fear[4] and increasingly strains inter-ethnic and inter-racial relations within communities.[5][6] In response, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued its Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases in May 2015, citing, specifically, MERS and Spanish Flu as “examples to be avoided” in an effort to minimize names’ negative impacts.[7]

 

While the coronavirus strain that has now become a global pandemic is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, the WHO prefers the nomenclature COVID-19 (“Corona Virus Disease 2019”). As viruses have no nationality or ethnicity, they are no longer named after their coutries of origin, and the WHO refutes the term “Chinese Virus” as unhelpful racial profiling.[8] The accusation against Trump is that his insistent use of the phrase “Chinese Virus”, against the guidance and best practices of WHO, is a political maneuver meant to either rile up his supporters against China before an election, or defer blame from his own handling of the crisis in the United States. Chinese media has blamed the virus on American military, a claim for which there is no proof.[9]

 

Early reports about COVID-19 suspected that the virus originated in a “wet market” (live animal market/abattoir) in Wuhan, transmitted through an animal, either a bat or a pangolin.[10] These reports have fed into a common stereotype regarding Chinese and East Asians in general, that their non-Western diets are unsanitary. Evidence suggests that reduced habitats and increased contact with humans are to blame for outbreaks such as SARS and COVID-19, but not specifically dietary habits;[11] however, some have adopted the “wet market” story as a banner that paints Chinese as less civilized and blames their diets for the disease.

 

Some nativists believe that COVID-19 justifies Trump’s previous anti-immigrant policies or current attempts to bar or remove asylum-seekers. As early as February 2020, Italy’s former Interior Minister and far-right leader Matteo Salvini exploited the virus outbreak to promote his party’s hardline against asylum-seekers.[12] Anti-immigrant sentiment often depicts immigrants as dirty and diseased, and blames the spread of disease on globalism. Some have urged Trump to similarly use COVID-19 as an impetus to take action against immigrants, regardless of country of origin. The White House has weighed the option of turning away any and all asylum-seekers at the Mexican border; at the time the proposal was reported, the U.S. had 5,600 confirmed cases, whereas Mexico had 82.[13]

 

During the second week of March, two individuals of Asian descent were attacked in New York City.[14] The first was a 23-year old woman who was punched in the face and had anti-Asian slurs yelled at her, and the second was a 59-year old male who was shoved to the ground, kicked, and had anti-Asian slurs yelled at him.[15] A female of Chinese ethnicity was attacked in London, England earlier in March, and in January The Guardian documented 10+ cases of racism from Toronto, to Italy and France - demonstrating the xenophobic messages are widespread.[16][17] A poll by Ipsos MORI showed that out of 8,001 adults, ages ranging from 16/18 (country dependent) - 74 in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States,  17% of those in the USA would avoid contact with those of Chinese descent, Russia at 37% and Australia at 23%.[18] 

 

 

The COVID-19 epidemic - and more importantly, government responses to it - are vectors which create a dangerous and unstable environment for extremism. Quarantine measures, even voluntary, have separated millions from their jobs, either permanently or temporarily.[19] Joblessness manifests as a shortage of immediate funds for most Americans. Combined with restrictions on nonessential businesses, and many are feeling either immediate or proximate economic anxiety. Bluntly, less money and social restrictions create uncertainty, leave people with more anger, worry, and fewer healthy social outlets.

 

Though it seems inane to blame “cabin fever” for radicalization, case studies on the Islamic State have shown that social alienation and boredom are drivers for extremism.[20] The individual trapped at home, separated from their job and paycheck, worried about the future, and feeling abandoned, can easily feel justifiable anger; combined with scapegoating and exposure to misinformation, can manifest into hatred toward Asians or Asian-Americans. Serious hatred is unlikely to become a sweeping, mainstream sentiment; however, it is critical to remember that extremists work in relatively small numbers, such that an increase of tens or hundreds of adherents may represent a significant shift in their capabilities.

 

Far-right groups see this pandemic as a reason to further push their xenophobic and racist messages, and even use the virus as a weapon to further their messages.[21] A leader of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), a neo-Nazi movement based in northern Europe, said that he welcomed the pandemic as a necessary step to help create “the world” that his group wants to see. Also, members of Feuerkrieg Division, a small neo-Nazi group with a presence in the US and Europe, discussed deliberately infecting Jews and others if one of the members caught the virus.[22]

 

The beliefs of these RWEs are usually based on conspiracy theories and to further strengthen their beliefs; thus, their attitudes on the virus shift to suit their existing beliefs. At first, right-wing groups claimed that the media was “overblowing” the significance of the virus, and that the virus is a conspiracy created by U.S. democrats to prevent Trump’s reelection in November 2020.[23] This is supported by the fact that President Donald Trump has actively been retweeting and sharing information that was proven to be false about COVID-19 and stating that it was just a “hoax”.[24] 

 

However, with the rapid increase of cases in the US since late February, and the White House’s subsequently shifting position on COVID-19, RWEs began using the virus to justify existing racist beliefs towards Asians, believing in the historical conspiracy theories that treat Asians as a form of the “yellow peril” that would invade and destroy the Western world. The politicization of COVID-19 by the far right, then, points to how these modes of discourse serve as narratives to reinforce a group identity in a way that serves this historical basis.[25]

 

The discourse is not solely related to nativist or anti-Asian sentiment; existing extremist groups have adopted COVID-19 as a factor in their own agendas. YouTube has reported a spike in jihadist videos which push a narrative that COVID-19 is a divine punishment.13 The FBI warns that Neo-Nazis have discussed the possibility of weaponizing the virus, using spray bottles of infected material to contaminate Jews and areas where they congregate, as well as police.[26] QANON, the fringe-right conspiracy theory that the world is ruled by a Satanic cabal, has promulgated multiple theories, some being that the virus is a population control measure, a smokescreen by the elite, to a weapon used by Donald Trump in order to arrest the elites under the guise of COVID-19 quarantines.[27]

 

The xenophobic exploitation of COVID-19 will not only hinder a coordinated global response to the pandemic, it could have significant policy implications to US-China relations, specifically, ongoing trade negotiations. Though the US and China signed Phase One of their trade deal in January, there are concerns the economic losses and market volatility linked to the virus outbreak will prevent China from fulfilling its obligations to buy American products. Similarly, business closures across the US in response to the virus may limit the availability and diversity of goods for purchase.[28] More worrisome, however, is the continued disengagement of the American economy from the global market. On Friday, March 27, President Trump was expected to sign an executive order mandating the US government to “Buy America” for pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.[29] Further isolation of the American marketplace from international trade through such policies could increase tensions,[30] delay the next round of US-China trade negotiations, and raise the likelihood of confrontation—the tit for tat limits on and expulsion of journalists, for example[31]—between the world’s two largest economies.

 

CTG Extremism will continue to monitor the threat of hate crimes against Asians during the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic. Coordination with other teams throughout CTG will help to accurately record the hate crimes. Coupled with monitoring social media, the team will also continue to watch for hate crimes against other groups as every group who does not comply with messages can ultimately become targeted, as seen with an increase in targeting of Jews and Blacks during the COVID-19 pandemic from white supremacist groups.

________________________________________________________________________________________

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Trump Defends Using ‘Chinese Virus’ Label, Ignoring Growing Criticism, The New York Times, March 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/us/politics/china-virus.html

[2] Trump says he's pulling back from calling novel coronavirus the 'China virus', CNN, March 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/24/politics/donald-trump-pull-back-coronavirus-chinese-virus/index.html

[3] The Chinese as medical scapegoats in San Francisco, 1870-1905, California History, Spring 1978, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25157817?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Chinatown Disease Ghosts by George Frederick Keller from The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library via Creative Commons

[4] “Spanish Flu”: When Infectious Disease Names Blur Origins and Stigmatize Those Infected, American Journal of Public Health, June 2018, https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304645?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed

[5] Multiculturalism, Racism and Infectious Disease in the Global City: The Experience of the 2003 SARS Outbreak in Toronto, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Fall 2006, https://utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/topia.16.23

[6] Amid swine flu outbreak, racism goes viral, NBCNews.com, May 2009, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/30467300/ns/health-cold_and_flu/t/amid-swine-flu-outbreak-racism-goes-viral/#.XoEcyYhKjD4 

[7] WHO best practices for naming of new human infectious diseases, World Health Organization, May 2015, https://www.who.int/topics/infectious_diseases/naming-new-diseases/en/

[8] WHO official warns against calling it 'Chinese virus,' says 'there is no blame in this', The Hill, March 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/488479-who-official-warns-against-calling-it-chinese-virus-says-there-is-no

[9] Trump’s “Chinese Virus” and What’s at Stake in the Coronavirus’s Name, New Yorker, March 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[10] 1st known case of coronavirus traced back to November in China, Live Science, March 2020, https://www.livescience.com/first-case-coronavirus-found.html

[11] The Covid-19 culprit is us, not pangolins, CNN, March 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/27/opinions/pangolin-coronavirus-pandemic-breiman/index.html

[12] The Other Problematic Outbreak, The Atlantic, March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/31/spate-of-anti-chinese-incidents-in-italy-amid-coronavirus-panic

[13] As White House Contemplates Coronavirus Asylum Ban, Hate Groups Urge Trump to Seize the Moment, Southern Poverty Law Center, March 2020, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2020/03/23/white-house-contemplates-coronavirus-asylum-ban-hate-groups-urge-trump-seize-moment

[14] Possible anti-Asian hate crime fueled by "bigoted notion" about coronavirus, New York governor says, CBS News, March 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/possible-anti-asian-hate-crime-fueled-by-bigoted-notion-about-coronavirus-ny-gov-andrew-cuomo-says/ 

[15] Ibid.

[16] East Asian student assaulted in 'racist' coronavirus attack in London, CNN, March 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/03/uk/coronavirus-assault-student-london-scli-intl-gbr/index.html

[17] Outbreaks of xenophobia in west as coronavirus spreads, The Guardian, January 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/31/spate-of-anti-chinese-incidents-in-italy-amid-coronavirus-panic

[18] COVID-19 – One in seven people would avoid people of Chinese origin or appearance, Ipsos MORI, February 2020, https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/covid-19-one-seven-people-would-avoid-people-chinese-origin-or-appearance

[19] Record-shattering 3.3 million jobless claims is just the start: Millions more jobs are at risk, Market Watch, March 2020, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/millions-more-us-jobs-at-risk-of-being-lost-as-coronavirus-crisis-deepens-2020-03-26

[20] Self-Isolation Might Stop Coronavirus, but It Will Speed the Spread of Extremism, Foreign Policy, March 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/26/self-isolation-might-stop-coronavirus-but-spread-extremism/

[21] How the pandemic is triggering racist attacks, VOX, March 2020,

https://www.vox.com/identities/2020/3/25/21190655/trump-coronavirus-racist-asian-americans 

[22] As world struggles to stop deaths, far right celebrates COVID-19, Al Jazeera, March 2020,

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/world-struggles-stop-deaths-celebrates-covid-19-200326165545387.html?fbclid=IwAR1sbrZ6P611r1wIqdKvW6REGAhMJjl62t7QnFN9y8f74rWJsJnkp9mdgAo 

[23] Coronavirus and the radical right: conspiracy, disinformation, and xenophobia, OpenDemocracy, March 2020,

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/countering-radical-right/coronavirus-and-radical-right-conspiracy-disinformation-and-xenophobia/ 

[24] The Trump Administration Fumbled Its Initial Response to Coronavirus. Is There Enough Time to Fix It?, Time, March 2020, https://time.com/5805683/trump-administration-coronavirus/

[25] Coronavirus and the radical right: conspiracy, disinformation, and xenophobia, OpenDemocracy, March 2020,

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/countering-radical-right/coronavirus-and-radical-right-conspiracy-disinformation-and-xenophobia/ 

[26] Extremist groups encourage members to spread coronavirus to police, Jews: FBI alert, ABC 7, March 2020, https://abc7ny.com/6038813/

[27] Far-right QAnon nutcases see Tom Hanks' coronavirus diagnosis as sure sign of looming mass arrests, Dailykos, March 2020, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/3/13/1927113/-Far-right-QAnon-nutcases-see-Tom-Hanks-coronavirus-diagnosis-as-sure-sign-of-looming-mass-arrests

[28] Virus pushes U.S.-Chinese relationship toward fracture, Politico, March 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/18/coronavirus-china-trade-136188

[29] Battle continues over ‘Buy America’ order, Politico, March 2020, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/morning-trade/2020/03/30/battle-continues-over-buy-american-order-786469

[30] Trump risks blowback from war of words with China over coronavirus, Reuters, March 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-china/trump-risks-blowback-from-war-of-words-with-china-over-coronavirus-idUSKBN21C3KS

[31] Virus pushes U.S.-Chinese relationship toward fracture, Politico, March 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/18/coronavirus-china-trade-136188

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