By Alisson Vera
Spring 2020 JRN 205
“Being Asian and putting on a face mask right now, it’s like all people can see is COVID-19.”
So says Tenzin Tsetan, a Tibetan freshman at Stony Brook University. She finds herself in the midst of a new xenophobic wave rising out of fear of COVID-19. The novel strain of coronavirus is responsible for 14,000 deaths worldwide and has been dubbed by some as the “Chinese virus.” Linking the virus with an ethnicity puts Asian communities at risks for becoming targets of xenophobia.
The virus, now categorized as a pandemic, has more than 30,000 cases in the United States alone. With the number of coronavirus cases increasing exponentially, states like California and New York are taking great measures to reduce population densities and ordering citizens to stay at home.
As the virus leaves many in a panic, the impacts of racist sentiments against Asian communities continue to grow as well. The CDC has stated that race does not play a role in contracting or spreading the disease. Italy, which now has more deaths attributed to the coronavirus than China, where the virus originated, has a Chinese population of less than 1 percent.
Shirely Lim, an Associate Professor at Stony Brook University whose interests lie in Asian-American history, revealed that this discrimination isn’t new. In 1876, San Francisco experienced a smallpox epidemic and “Chinese laundrymen, laborers, and servants were blamed for bringing disease into white middle-class homes,” she stated.
Neighborhoods like New York City’s Chinatown and Flushing have all seen the impact of this discrimination. The Flushing Chinese Business association estimates that business has gone down around 40 percent in the neighborhood.
Anthony Gentile, a 59 year-old man from Huntington, said that he would refrain from eating Chinese take-out and dining at Chinese restaurants during the spread of the coronavirus. He said that he knows people born in China who are doing the same, “I just figured, what do they know that I don’t? So I’m just avoiding it to be safe.”
The reaches of this racism aren’t limited to highly Asian populated neighborhoods. Another area of impact is Stony Brook University, a state research university, where 41 percent of the student population is Asian.
Aside from being an intern for the Civic Center for Justice, an outreach coordinator for Environmental Club, part of a panel for sustainability practices, and training to be an HDV fellow, Tsetan is also a Greeter at Stony Brook University Hospital. She sits at the front desk and welcomes visitors throughout the day with a smile on her face.
The job required her to get her flu shots and wear medical face masks following the vaccine as protocol. This was in late January, when fears over the coronavirus were high, but there had been no deaths in the United States. “Something changed after putting the mask on,” Tsetan said, “suddenly I could feel intense eyes on me and it was nerve-wracking.”
Tsetan would be repeatedly approached by hospital visitors with questions surrounding her health and why she was wearing the mask. These questions, she noticed, were never aimed at her African-American coworker who sat next to and also wore the medical face mask.
“Are you sick? What’s wrong with you? Why are you wearing the mask? It just made me extremely uncomfortable.” Tsetan revealed.
Tsetan was rotated to a backroom area where she would no longer be at the front and center of the hospital’s entrance. “It’s routine and it wasn’t in response to what happened, but I was so relieved because now I didn’t have to deal with the questions,” she said.
Tsetan expressed that her experience with the hospital wasn’t reflective of students at the university and she widely attributes that to the fact that Stony Brook University is very diverse. “In the hospital, anyone comes and goes, but at school, it’s much more understanding and people aren’t like that.”
However, in mid-March, Kappa Phi Lambda Sorority Inc., a predominantly East-Asian sorority at Stony Brook University received racists slurs on a google form for a fundraiser. The form was for those who wanted to order skewers for the sorority’s fundraiser. The fill-in’s in the form read “F— you chinese (vulgarity) for COVID19” and listed “bat skewers” as the skewer of choice, in reference to bats being a possible source for the coronavirus.
Sara Tonen, a member of the Sorority, expressed disbelief in receiving the form. “Never did I expect I would see something like this; once I saw the entire form I was so angry.”
Yet others are expressing support for the Asian-American community at Stony Brook University. Wei Chen, a junior international Asian student, revealed that in her dorm building people have been widely supportive. An RA bulletin board that she took a picture of to show others, reading “I am not a virus” and renouncing xenophobia was proudly displayed in her hall.
Alex Wong, an Asian senior at the university, stated that the fear isn’t in just other communities but in the Asian community itself. “My parents don’t want my grandma going to Flushing because of the high concentration of Asians.” He said.
On social media platforms, videos showing assaults on Asian people have widely circulated. Specifically, one showing a man being Febrezed on a subway train and another of an elderly man being beaten and harassed by a crowd.
“The flu kills people all the time, but no one makes a big deal out of that.” Rachel Lau, a senior from Hong Kong in clinical studies, stated.
The coronavirus strain COVID-19, has a global mortality rate estimated at about 3.4 percent according to World Health Organization (WHO) officials. Influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, has a mortality rate less than 1 percent. However, it is expected that with time, the rate will decrease for COVID-19.
Stony Brook University, along with many other universities across the country, have moved to online classes for the remainder of the semester and have closed dorms in an effort to reduce population density on campus.