University campuses have proven to be ripe incubators in the midst of the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, as evidenced by a series of insensitive, racist and discriminatory incidents. Students donned masks in classrooms and an online petition to suspend classes at the University of California, Santa Barbara collected more than 1,100 signatures. An off-campus coronavirus party at New York University in Albany has been condemned by university officials and student groups.
Institutional responses also included missteps. Among the most glaring: An Instagram article from the UC Berkeley health center on managing anxiety about the coronavirus has drawn strong criticism for having listed xenophobia against Asians as a “normal reaction”.
As the Centers for Disease Control warn of a resurgence of the epidemic in the United States and with the confirmation of the first American coronavirus death on Saturday, we must go beyond educating students about basic prevention of infectious diseases, such as hand washing. We must also fight against the growing stereotypes, racism and discrimination which constitute long-term threats to our health, our economy and our individual and collective psyche.
Revival of anti-Chinese sentiment
Anti-Chinese sentiment increased with global anxiety. Although the United States had only 19 confirmed cases on Friday, this crisis has rekindled larger racist and anti-immigration accounts. Residents and citizens of East Asian origin spoke of feeling coughed in public, encountering racist comments and jokes, and being subjected to subtle ostracism from people who keep their distance on public transportation, in the crowd and at school.
At Stacy’s health sciences campus, two patients with confirmed COVID-19 were transferred to the Helen Diller Medical Center at UC San Francisco. In an appropriate juxtaposition, across the street, an archival exhibit documents early responses to the AIDS epidemic, when hysteria and uncertainty fueled stigma and anti-gay discrimination swept through the country and then terrified of “gay cancer”.
The title of the exhibit, “They Were Really Us,” is a quote from Dr. Paul Volberding, who co-founded the country’s first AIDS clinic in 1983 and now heads the UCSF AIDS Research Institute. : “The patients were exactly our age … all of the other ways we tend to separate mean very little when you realize that the patients went to the same schools, they listened to the same music, they went to the same restaurants. So they really were us … ”
These reflections constitute an important reminder to apply the same empathy and the same commitment to this current epidemic. “They”, whoever they are, we are all.
Some public health officials set the right tone by calling for unity and calm. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, called for cooperation between countries working to end the epidemic. “We are all in the same boat, and we can only stop it together. The rule of the game is solidarity, solidarity, solidarity, ”he said. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease at the Centers for Disease Control, urged to avoid stereotypes. “Please don’t assume this just because someone is of Asian descent that they have this new coronavirus, “she said.
We see this crisis as an opportunity for honest dialogue in our common school, work and community spaces. As teachers, we take advantage of these moments to advance uncomfortable discussions that improve understanding of the socio-historical legacies of anti-immigrant sentiment that are bubbling today.
In the United States, our dark history of anti-Chinese sentiment dates back to the 19th century, when Chinese immigrants arrived to work during the gold rush and build the transcontinental railroad. They were then subjected to policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and quarantines in Chinatown in San Francisco during an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900.
Infectious diseases divide us
Before the coronavirus epidemic, Xuemei asked his research class in the field of ubiquity of face masks in East Asia to open a discussion on social practices taken for granted. They considered different stories of public health management, environmental risks and cultural views of gender and collective society as possible explanations and discussed the perception that only very sick people would wear face masks. To break the unspoken social norm in the United States, Xuemei suggested that students wear a mask and observe people’s reaction.
With the sharing of public facilities in the populated cities of East Asia such as Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore, masks have developed as a means of ensuring public health. Xuemei’s friends in Taiwan and Japan feel particularly inconsiderate if they cough around others without a mask. His family in China wears masks to avoid inhaling the dust from the ground and environmental pollution. Celebrities often wear masks at airports to avoid recognition, and some women wear them when they don’t want to wear makeup, spurring a thriving face mask industry that makes fun and fashionable masks in a variety of materials, shapes and patterns.
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Infectious diseases have often proven to be a source of division for societies: if someone can give you a disease, everyone is potentially a threat and your enemy. Crises like the latest epidemic test affect not only the knowledge and technology of the scientific community, but also social infrastructure and confidence. But each of us has a responsibility to help calm the hysteria, correct misperceptions and resist defamation from any group of people, even those who are infected. Students across the country need to hear this message early and often. Given current public health efforts, we can defeat the virus and save lives, but if we neglect our duty to overcome racism and xenophobia that lie beneath the surface of health problems, we risk losing our collective soul. .
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UC San Francisco. Xuemei Cao holds a doctorate. candidate in sociology at the University of Albany, State University of New York.