The deadly coronavirus outbreak is sparking anti-Asian bigotry, hysteria and violence around the globe as the spread of rumor and misinformation grips people with fear.
On Feb. 4 in Bolivia, three Japanese tourists in their 20s visiting the Uyuni salt flats were quarantined at a local hospital, despite having no history of traveling to China nor exhibiting any symptoms of the pneumonia-causing infection.
After being briefly isolated, the three were released, but the actions of the local authorities demonstrate the pernicious combination of misinformation and panic.
At the end of January in Rio de Janeiro, a Japanese Brazilian law student was abused on a subway by a woman who called her a “Chinese pig” that is “spreading diseases to everyone.”
According to U.S. media, in New York in early February, an Asian woman wearing a face mask was allegedly attacked by a man who rained down a barrage of punches and kicks on her in a Chinatown subway station. He also directed various obscenities at her and called her “diseased.”
A video of the incident, which was filmed by a bystander and went viral on social media, appears to show the woman running through the station to confront the man after he allegedly struck her on the head. The man’s visceral response is believed to have been a reaction to the masks people have been wearing to protect themselves from COVID-19, which as of Tuesday had killed 1,868 in mainland China and a few elsewhere, including one in Japan.
After a December trip to China’s Hunan province, a Seattle woman was confronted by her condo property manager after returning home Feb. 2. The manager urged her to leave her home and to isolate herself elsewhere because she had traveled to China, although she had no signs of the coronavirus and had not been issued an order to vacate her dwelling by any public authority.
Flyers from by the building management with the notice “Virus Quarantine” were later posted near the entryway to her condo, warning residents to wear face masks and gloves near her apartment.
And a group of college students from Hitotsubashi University who visited Paris on a study tour at the end of January came across a local group of young men who made gestures covering their mouths and noses with their hands while tormenting them with taunts of “corona.”
Indeed, fears of a pandemic are causing shocking levels of racism and hysteria. As of Monday, confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus had surpassed 71,000 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
A man of Chinese descent overheard someone say, “We’ll be in trouble if these guys sneeze on us” as he and his brother entered a lift in Manchester’s Piccadilly Station, and two students mistakenly thought to be Chinese were pelted with eggs in Leicestershire, The Guardian reported earlier this month.
According to the Embassy of Japan in Egypt, clothing store clerks in Cairo have been hesitating to serve Asian customers, and in some cases Egyptians have been heard yelling out “corona” when passing Japanese people on the street.
“We don’t want to discriminate, but it is also a fact that there are store clerks who are wary about serving Chinese customers. It is also hard to distinguish them from Japanese customers,” said a 60-year-old man who manages a souvenir shop.
The number of new coronavirus infections among passengers and crew of the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined at Yokohama port rose to 454, while more domestic cases were also reported and experts warned a widespread outbreak could be imminent.
Two U.S. government-chartered planes carrying hundreds of American citizens evacuated from the vessel departed the capital from Haneda Airport on Monday morning.
Infections of the virus, which is thought to have originated in Wuhan, have spread in Japan among people with no direct connections to China, with new cases reported in Tokyo and Hokkaido, as well as Aichi and Okinawa prefectures.
The latest cases in Tokyo and Hokkaido came on the heels of Japan’s first coronavirus death — that of a woman in her 80s in Kanagawa Prefecture, whose son-in-law, a taxi driver, was also found to be infected with the virus.
Asia is not immune to panic-driven discrimination, either. Recently, a #ChineseDontComeToJapan hashtag trended on Twitter, and in Singapore a Change.org online petition was started calling on the government to ban Chinese nationals from being allowed to enter the city-state.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has voiced concerns about discrimination due to the coronavirus outbreak, calling on the public to be wary, but reasonable.
“It’s easy to move into … perspectives in which there tends to be discrimination, there tends to be violation of human rights, there tends to be stigma on innocent people just because of their ethnicity,” Guterres said during a news conference.
He appealed for “a strong feeling of international solidarity, a strong feeling of support to China in these difficult circumstances but also to other countries that might be impacted,” calling on people to “avoid the stigmatization of people that are innocent and that might be victims of that situation.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.