Elena Ong with husband and young sonToday’s guest post is by APHA member Elena Ong, PHN, MS, co-editor of AAPIs 2040, a special edition of the AAPI Nexus journal that provides insights on the fastest growing racial population in the U.S. — Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Ong is past president and founding CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander Caucus for Public Health, a recent APHA Executive Board member and a past vice president of the Southern California Public Health Association.

As COVID-19 continues to spread and affect people in the U.S. and across the globe, Asian people and communities are facing another unwanted outbreak: xenophobic racism. Since the first case of the new coronavirus was reported in Wuhan, China, in December, there’s been a surge in reports of microaggressions, discrimination and violent attacks against people who look Chinese or Asian.

According to faculty at San Francisco State University, there were more than 1,000 reported cases of xenophobia against Asians in America and throughout the world between Jan. 28 and Feb. 24. 

For example, a 16-year-old high school student in California was sent to the ER after being attacked by bullies who accused him of having COVID-19 just because of his ethnicity. In New York, an Asian woman wearing a face mask was attacked on the subway and accused of spreading the disease. In Sydney, Australia, a 60-year-old man died of a cardiac arrest outside a Chinese restaurant because bystanders, fearing COVID-19, avoided giving him CPR

Such actions have been fueled by misinformed and misplaced conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus and how it spreads, hurting the health and economic well-being of the community. Chinatowns worldwide have seen a downturn in patronage, with news accounts reporting a 50% decline in business.
 Racism and xenophobia against Asians are not new. There’s a long history of blaming Asians for America’s health woes.

Xenophobia has often been camouflaged as a concern for the public’s health and hygiene. Worse is what happens when a contagious disease is named after the countries in which they originate. Doing so contributes to xenophobia and racial profiling, which is why the World Health Organization picked the neutral COVID-19 — or Corona Virus Disease 2019 — as the disease’s name. 

Elena Ong holding #IamNotAVirus I am a human signAsians have been stepping up and speaking out against discrimination on social media with the #IAmNotAVirus hashtag. In Florence, Italy, a Chinese-Italian man stood blindfolded next to a sign that said, “I am not a virus, I am a human being, free me from prejudice,” prompting concerns from passersby and attracting global news coverage.

I encourage all public health professionals, and those they advise, to stop the spread of xenophobia, racism and misinformation by sharing only confirmed and verifiable information pertaining to COVID-19, how it spreads and how people should protect themselves throughout the world. We need to spread the facts, not the virus. 

A significant percentage of the health care workforce — and a growing portion of the public health workforce — who are working at the frontlines to fight COVID-19 are Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. I urge you to counter overt and systemic racism by presenting the facts, sharing the narratives and ensuring that government leaders support equity-oriented solutions to the COVID-19 crisis.

Xenophobia, racism and classism should not interfere with preventing and treating COVID-19 in America, or worldwide. We, as public health professionals, must:

Empower people to support their communities by protecting each other and staying safe and well. Don’t let social distancing prevent you from being physically and mentally active and engaged. Join online clubs, participate in the 2020 census and vote by mail. Prevent, track and stop hate incidents and crimes related to COVID-19 by working with local human relations commissions and local and state attorneys general.

Ensure that the $8.3 billion in U.S. emergency aid funding and the $50 billion in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act are spent to equitably prevent, abate and treat COVID-19. 

Defend the development and distribution of an affordable and accessible COVID-19 vaccine. 

Prevent the spread of COVID-19 by proactively working with business and governments to encourage telecommuting and social distancing, being mindful that millions of Americans — particularly those in the service sector and gig economy — don’t have enough sick leave to stay home.

Help contain the spread of the disease through an equity and social justice lens. Don’t disproportionately place quarantine sites in disadvantaged communities. Provide fair and equitable treatment for people experiencing homelessness.

Together, let’s fight fear-mongering with principled and visionary leadership. Evidence-based knowledge and equity-oriented solutions will help us navigate and resolve this pandemic without causing more harm.

Photos courtesy Elena Ong