When news of a novel coronavirus began to trickle out of the Chinese city of Wuhan in early January, Eunice began wearing a face mask. Though she lives more than 7,000 miles away, in New York City, she reasoned it would nevertheless be an ideal way to protect herself, especially on public transport. A Hong Kong native who lived through the 2003 SARS outbreak, she understood wearing the mask to be more than a simple precaution.
“When you wear a mask, it’s a symbol of solidarity to other people,” Eunice, who asked to be identified only by her first name, told us. “It’s [a way of] saying, ‘I understand that things are scary, but here is a thing that I’m going to do to protect myself and to protect all of you.’”
Not everyone around her, however, shared this understanding. In the weeks that followed, Eunice said she began experiencing multiple forms of xenophobia, such as people overtly distancing themselves from her on public transit or making racist comments—including a death threat. “Every time something like this happens to me, I always have a fleeting thought of, like, Should I not go out in a mask anymore?” she said. “I should not have to choose my safety over my health.”
Wherever a pandemic goes, xenophobia is never far behind. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus (and the disease it causes, COVID-19) began, reports of racism toward East Asian communities have grown apace. (More recently, this has expanded beyond East Asian populations: Thailand’s public-health minister yesterday appeared to lash out at white foreigners who he said were dirty and spreading the virus in the country, adding that people should be more afraid of Westerners than Asians.)