COVID-19, Anti-Asian Racism, and the Racialization of Epidemics

November 2, 2020

Around mid-March this year, in the midst of what was meant to be a year-long sabbatical in China, we received an invitation to a private WeChat group populated by Asian-American parents in our suburban Cincinnati, OH school district. Such invitations were typical on the Chinese diaspora’s most popular social media platform. There was one group for folks needing language assistance, a separate one discussing after-school enrichment and college counseling, and several other interest-based virtual groups for what is a fairly heterogenous collective of Asian immigrant and Asian-American individuals and families. What was different this time around was the group’s name: Sycamore SOS. As the invitation message outlined, the group was meant to be a virtual neighborhood watch, a space where members of this small community could call (on one another) for help if they were facing COVID-19 related racist attacks – of the sort that Asian-Americans across the country were increasingly reporting.

The initial proliferation of the novel coronavirus (SARS CoV-2) in the United States coincided with a sharp uptick in reports of public racial abuse of “Asian-looking” individuals, bullying of Asian-American children in schools, defacement and/or vandalism of Asian-American homes, and a general sense of epidemic-laced xenophobia.

The initial proliferation of the novel coronavirus (SARS CoV-2) in the United States coincided with a sharp uptick in reports of public racial abuse of “Asian-looking” individuals, bullying of Asian-American children in schools, defacement and/or vandalism of Asian-American homes, and a general sense of epidemic-laced xenophobia. The WeChat group offered a buttress, albeit fleeting, to those who suddenly felt vulnerable. Quarantined, as we were, in Nanjing, China, we were lucky to avoid this threat firsthand, but media reports from Wuhan indicated that similar groups were forming in China as well. Indian students, stuck in sealed-off Wuhan, were sending out SOS messages on WeChat for food and rations, while Chinese immigrant families in India, admittedly an exponentially smaller group, were trying to find compatriots who lived in the same or neighboring cities. As a user posted in our U.S.-based group: “Just let us know if you need help, we’re only a car ride away!”

[A] recent survey of more than 9,000 U.S. adults by the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of all respondents felt that it is now more common for people to express racist views about Asians than it was pre-COVID.

The concerns seemed justified: a recent survey of more than 9,000 U.S. adults by the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of all respondents felt that it is now more common for people to express racist views about Asians than it was pre-COVID. Nearly 60 percent of Asian adults responding to the same question reported feeling that COVID-19 has made racist expressions against them more common. Further, when compared with Blacks, Hispanic and white respondents, Asians most commonly reported negative experiences, such as people acting uncomfortably in their presence, being subjected to slurs, or having their physical safety threatened.

Pew Research Center

Civil society organizations and advocacy groups including the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (AP3CON) have extensively tracked, documented, and categorized instances of anti-Asian hate in the United States since mid-March 2020. In a recent report, AP3CON notes that anti-Chinese sentiment was the most predominant catalyst for racism against Asian-Americans. Given the current dynamics between the United States and China, and President Trump’s insistence on referring to COVID as the “China virus,” it is obvious that there is an everyday acrimony against China within U.S. public discourse. However, as scholars interested in the social foment created by epidemics, we feel it is limiting to attribute the current anti-Asian sentiment to the revanchist innuendoes of a demagogue alone – the analysis must be deeper and must go further.

To be clear, COVID-related discrimination exists outside the United States as well. Asians in Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and indeed, parts of the Asian continent have also confronted the ignominy of racist abuse. For example, in the initial months of 2020, Indians from the North-Eastern states (Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland), who have long been racialized and othered on account of their ethnic features, reported a sharp spike in hate speech and discrimination, including being called “Chinese” and therefore a “COVID carrier.”

In the United States, this current moment of racist xenophobia against Asians is the most recent link in a centuries-old chain of state-sanctioned discrimination against Asian immigrants and ethnic groups, an insidious corollary to its foundational sins of settler colonialism, slavery, and institutionalized racism. The country’s history includes the Chinese Removal Act of 1887 and its amendments in 1924 that prohibited all Asian immigration to the United States, the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the exploitation of Filipino and other farm workers that culminated in the formation of the United Farm Workers Committee, the murder of Vincent Chin, and post 9-11 violence on Asian bodies that gained justification through the Patriot Act. COVID-19-related racialized violence against Asians can only truly be reckoned with through this often-untold history.

As Communication scholars and practitioners, however, we can draw on this moment to examine how epidemics (and societal responses to epidemics) create the conditions for specific ways of communicating, rationalizing, othering, and demonizing groups of people. In a 2017 essay in the journal Health Communication, one of us argued that public responses to epidemics are organized around “ontological narratives” – a storyline embedded in a particular worldview, replete with heroes, villains, crises, saboteurs, and a moral economy within which the epidemic makes sense. Although this was written in the context of responses to the 2014 West African Ebola epidemic and the resulting public communication produced by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the argument holds true for epidemics in general, and certainly for COVID-19.

Epidemics, Race, and Place

Epidemics have always been racialized. In contexts where the social construct of “race” was/is not salient, public anxiety around contagion has been molded around other corresponding forms of identarian categorization – skin pigment, gender, caste, sexual orientation, nationality, profession – that are dominant within that particular socio-cultural milieu. This is true in a historical sense – it is not a coincidence that the trajectories of colonial public administration overlap with the development of modern epidemic surveillance methods. Many of the tools in our toolbox of public health management were developed in or refined under the aegis of “tropical medicine” – an entire domain of knowledge that sprung up in the 17th and 18th centuries to provide scientific and medical justification for the colonial conquest of the “New World.” Under this regime of knowledge, it was the miasmas (the malodorous airs) of Asia, Africa and the Americas that were inherently disease-causing, while the “primitive” practices of its inhabitants required a robust, authoritative, scientific approach to public administration, with an emphasis on counting, controlling, and surveilling native bodies. Besides, epidemics were clearly bad for the business of colonial governance – the mass uncertainty, confusion and social strife offered several opportunities for the colonized to question the seemingly inevitability of the Raj. As one of us has argued in our work, these historical imprints of tropical medicine still loom large on global public health interventions in the form of miasmatic assumptions and Orientalist stereotypes about the global South. One has only to look at the lurid descriptions of the Asian “wet markets” to witness the enduring power of miasmatic theory.

The fracas over popular labels for COVID-19 is another demonstration of the semiotic power of miasmas. The U.S. president’s belligerent defense of the term “China virus” in his personal and official communication lends credence to the realpolitik of racializing places and people. Amid criticism from the World Health Organization and other quarters that the term “China virus” enables and emboldens Anti-Asian racism, defenders of this labeling practice have normalized it, pointing to such terms as “Ebola Virus Disease” and “West Nile Virus” as unproblematically associated with geographical sites. But there is an analytical difference between the inherent politics of geographic denotation of diseases and the connotative act of politicizing disease as place-specific. In the case of Ebola, while the virus was indeed named after the Ebola river in Congo –“Ebola” itself a French rendering of the indigenous name for the river Legbala – the decision to name the disease after the river, and not Yambuku, the town in which it was first identified, was made precisely to elide the stigma associated with the disease. The naming of the West Nile virus likely has a similar origin story.

At any rate, the debate around naming diseases after places is messy. On the one hand, there is a case to be made about simple denotation – Lassa Fever from the eponymous town in Nigeria, or Lyme Disease from Lyme, Connecticut. On the other, there is the connotative practice of “othering,” of naming a disease after an identifiable outsider on whom to place responsibility (or blame). While “China virus” is fecund material for the zeitgeist of U.S.-China relations in 2020, it may surprise non-Chinese readers to know that the term “Wuhan coronavirus” was publicly and prominently used as a descriptor in the Chinese cybersphere during the early stages of the epidemic. There are our others, but also their others.

To be clear, offering historical evidence that epidemics engender xenophobia is not meant to be a repudiation of the Anti-Asian or Anti-Chinese racism on display in the United States. On the contrary, the point is to demonstrate just how deep-seated and easily evoked these racist stereotypes are, even as popular depictions of China in the American imagination transform across decades. Today, China occupies a peculiarly paradoxical space in the American public imagination, amenable to exoticism of both culture and capital. Orientalist depictions of “exotic” Chinese cultural practices coexist with anxieties about the geopolitical and economic claims of the Chinese state. To use a term from our earlier work on mainstream depictions of China in the United States, this Neoliberal Orientalist discourse is deployed in the case of COVID as well. This paradoxical discourse allows for rendering Chinese dietary practices and culture as backward, while willfully ignoring the scientific evidence about COVID prevention that has emerged from China. Exceptionalism kills.

Epidemiology with Chinese Characteristics?

On the other side of the equation, it is hard to describe popular sentiment about the United States in China as anything but schadenfreude. Earlier this summer, Xinhua, the official news agency of the People’s Republic of China, released an animated video, in which LEGO minifigure interlocuters, representing China and the United States, bemoaned how the United States squandered away the time that China bought it to control the pandemic, and ignored its warnings at its own peril. The absurdity of this genre is hard to overlook, but perhaps is a parable to where things stand between the two countries. Meanwhile, China’s robust “control” of the virus has emerged as a muscular nationalist project, the debacles of the initial response in Hubei an aberrant, hazy memory. The same scientistic zeal that props up China’s geopolitical ambitions in the form of ports, airports, and power plants in countries along the “New Silk Roads” has now been championed to the cause of epidemiology at home in China. Hospitals are built in days, chronic mask shortages turn into production surpluses that can feed global demand in a matter of weeks, and medical teams from China visit other countries to disseminate knowhow. “For China, for Wuhan!” goes a popular chant. As a sharp counterpoint to the stories of anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, social media is flooded with stories of how frontline workers in China bend to every whim and dietary fancy of their quarantined foreigner clients. Comments on these stories tilt heavily toward criticizing such preferential treatment, calling for “equal,” if not harsher treatment of foreigners, even those of Chinese origin.

The muscular nationalism of China’s COVID response has brought to the forefront the rampant misogyny and racism on Chinese social networks, and in China at large. Returning Chinese students have become the objects of epidemiological surveillance as potential “imported cases,” and are subject to online vilification, suspicion, and abuse. Clips of returning Chinese citizens breaking quarantine to go for a run, violating masking expectations, or demanding better food circulate across online platforms as a cautionary tale of the dangers of repatriated bodies threatening the hard-fought gains on the microbial battleground.

Anti-foreigner sentiment in China goes beyond the suspicion of returning Chinese students. In the city of Guangzhou, in southern China, an unfounded rumor about an elevated COVID-19 caseload among the city’s significant African immigrant population resulted in a sharp rise in discrimination and suffering for this community. African residents of Guangzhou were evicted from their homes overnight, kicked out of hotels, and refused service in restaurants, and in many cases spent days on the streets or outside consulates/embassies. Several reports suggested that African immigrants were randomly and forcibly tested for COVID-19. Lists of city restaurants frequented by African immigrants were circulated on social media as places to avoid, and the city government upgraded the risk level for two neighborhoods known to be high-concentration areas for African immigrants, on the basis of five positive cases. Meanwhile, more than a hundred U.S. citizens in Guangzhou tested positive for COVID-19 during the same week, and none reported any incidents of eviction or forced testing. The everyday suspicion of Black bodies, and the coarse colorist, developmentalist racism toward Africans that is on display in China was severely exacerbated during COVID-19. More importantly, such racism, juxtaposed with the burgeoning movement against systemic anti-Black racism in the United States, the mainstreaming of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality and morbidity in the United States, reveals the particular vulnerability of Black bodies in the pandemic. Any analysis of COVID-related Anti-Asian racism that ignores the anti-blackness endemic to both the United States and China fundamentally misses the point.

As U.S.-based Communication scholars who were meant to complete an NCA-awarded sabbatical fellowship at a partner University in China; who happened to land in Beijing just as the initial lockdowns began across the country, who traveled back to the United States during the week when the daily incidence of COVID cases in the United States surpassed the official cumulative caseload in China, and whose families have been in lockdown for more than six months in India, our experiences of COVID-19 are admittedly unique. We inhabit a multitude of identities in a complex, globalized world – we have variously and simultaneously been international students in the United States, members of its diasporic Asian community, and “nonimmigrant aliens” on work visas (like the thousands of our counterparts whose ability to enter and remain in the U.S. labor market is now threatened by a COVID-enhanced crackdown on immigration). Nevertheless, there is a sense that the cultural politics of a “post-COVID” world will depend at least in part on complicating and scrutinizing the idea of Asia in the global imagination, and how identity terms such as “Asian-American” obfuscate very real differences in the material and somatic realities experienced by various people of Asian origin.




SHAUNAK SASTRY is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Cincinnati, and Vice-Chair of the Asian and Pacific American Caucus of the National Communication Association. Sastry’s research focuses on critical health communication and global infectious disease responses, and has been published in outlets including Communication Theory, Health Communication, Journal of Health Communication, and the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication. Sastry currently serves as a Senior Editor of Health Communication. Sastry was a 2020 winner of the National Communication Association-Communication University of China (NCA-CUC) Visiting Scholar Program. 


ZHUO BAN is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Cincinnati. Ban’s research explores globalization, labor activism and corporate social responsibility discourses from Critical Public Relations/Critical Organizational Communication perspectives. Ban’s work has been published in international, peer-reviewed journals including Organization, Management Communication Quarterly, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Public Relations Inquiry, and Journal of International and Intercultural Communication. Ban sits on the editorial boards of several journals in Communication. Previously, Ban worked in television news in Southern China for many years, including during the period of the SARS epidemic.