Coronavirus fears on Grounds and the alienation of the Asian student body

How fears surrounding the coronavirus outbreak have manifested in the broader University community

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Samantha Cynn is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

It is an understatement to say that COVID-19 — more commonly known by the the family of viruses the disease belongs to, coronavirus — has been a prominent force in the global public consciousness over these past few weeks. In December 2019, a mere handful of cases with pneumonia-like symptoms arose in Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province and one of China’s largest cities. However, today, the country estimates that there are 74,000 total infections and over 2,000 deaths, making the disease more infectious and deadly than the SARS epidemic — the most recent worldwide outbreak, which also originated in China and infected 8,000 people. 

Every day, dozens of articles are published around the world, updating us on the latest news pertaining to the contagious virus — its infection rate, its gradual expansion across numerous countries and the growing death toll. As of today, over 76,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed or are suspected in nearly 30 countries, with few able to confidently predict just how far the disease will spread. During this time, it is necessary to look at how people's negative perceptions of coronavirus have led to harmful assumptions about Asians and Asian Americans, as uninfected members of those communities have endured mockery, distrust and outright hostility from non-Asian majorities — even at the University.

It’s reasonable to be concerned about the damage coronavirus has already caused, and that alone is more than enough to make anyone anxious. These fears have reverberated even within our own community. When a George Mason University student was suspected of being infected after displaying symptoms consistent with coronavirus, I know people who openly feared the consequences of a coronavirus outbreak so close to the University. Some students from Northern Virginia worried about their hometowns, scared by George Mason University’s proximity to their families and loved ones. One of my friends even said he would avoid going back if coronavirus was indeed present in the area. Though the student ultimately tested negative, these reactions to the mere possibility of an infection are a testament to the ways in which coronavirus fears are now affecting normal life here at the University.

That being said, it’s hard to understate the ways in which these shifts are felt specifically by Asian and Asian American individuals both on and off Grounds. Because the vast majority of infected people are Chinese and the virus originated in Wuhan, many around the world have expressed animosity towards those of East Asian descent as the virus continues to expand and grow.

Asians in the United States have faced discrimination and have even been attacked under the assumption that they are coronavirus carriers. University of California, Berkeley faced severe backlash from its student body after their University Health Services posted an infographic listing common reactions to the spread of coronavirus that included xenophobia, appearing to normalize feelings of open fear and racism towards Asian students. Chinatowns in cities like New York City, Boston and Houston have been impacted by significant decreases in visitors to Chinese-owned businesses. A Chinese woman wearing a face mask was allegedly assaulted and called “diseased” on a New York City subway, and a 16-year-old Asian American boy in California was physically attacked by a group of bullies who accused him of having coronavirus. The explosion of incidents involving Asian American victims as of late is indicative of the perilous effects of rampant fear left unchecked.

While life on Grounds has been nowhere near as violent or aggressive as other instances across the nation, the influence of this widespread fear still remains. I have seen students cross the street to seemingly avoid walking near Asian students and exchange looks at the sight of an Asian person wearing a face mask. While everything is left unsaid, it’s these small, mundane things that make the University experience just a little more uncomfortable and less welcoming for both its international and domestic Asian students.

As an Asian American, I have experienced the discomfort of being associated with coronavirus firsthand. In one of my classes, a trio of girls loudly discussed coronavirus while staring at me — the only Asian student in the room. Another time, I coughed in a small discussion classroom and couldn’t help but notice the way a non-Asian student looked up in my direction and proceeded to back away in his seat, his eyes darting towards me for the remainder of class. 

These things are subtle, extremely so, and that, perhaps, is the worst part of it. Because of the subtlety, I can’t help but wonder afterwards if it was all in my head or if it was really my race that motivated these actions, and the paranoia that ensues after each encounter is agonizing. Each time, despite knowing that there is nothing to be ashamed of, a wave of embarrassment washes over me as well, leaving me self-conscious over something that is entirely out of my control — my race. I have not been alone in experiencing these alienating emotions over the past couple of months, as other Asian students have shared their similar experiences with me. One person even told me how a student covered his mouth and nose while walking past her, despite her perfect bill of health, as if he would catch the contagion by sharing the same air as her.

I’m not trying to say that these experiences have irreparably impacted my time here or that I have suffered more than anyone else at the University. That’s far from the truth. In fact, I am incredibly lucky to live in a space that prides itself on inclusivity and acceptance, and it is this desire to embrace those of diverse backgrounds that pushes the University community to do and be better. 

However, this pattern of xenophobic behavior has continuously affected Asian and Asian American students on Grounds — and never in a good way. Though I am certain that the overwhelming majority of this wariness does not come from a place of malicious prejudice or racism, it’s important that we remain conscious of things that we do and say that may, intentionally or not, alienate or make specific groups of people feel like the “other.” 

The University should first and foremost be a place where everyone can feel like they belong, and I’m hopeful that the fears we face in this moment will actually provide an opportunity for us to reassert the values that make our community strive to be great in the first place.

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