With as little as we know about the novel coronavirus, it is justifiable to be a little terrified. The Chinese government has been less than forthright about the severity of the infection, and the degree to which the disease has spread has overwhelmed its medical system to the point it is probably impossible to know the actual extent now. There are likely many infected individuals who are unable to access China’s healthcare system.
What we do know is that the number of documented infections in China had risen to over 31,000 and deaths of over 600 in China alone as of Feb. 7. This is an increase in under three weeks from only 258 documented cases as reported by the World Health Organization. Although the Chinese government was slow in responding to the threat, the country has fully taken advantage of their command-and-control style of governance and has largely locked down the province where the disease is centered, and travel out of China has pretty much ended for the near future. As a result, there is very little presence of the disease outside of China, and only 12 cases in the United States. It would seem that right now, there is little immediate threat to us in the United States from the novel coronavirus.
In reality, there is much greater immediate threat to us from the seasonal flu virus, or as we have seen in recent years, outbreaks of measles being transmitted through public places like amusement parks or the airport. Fortunately, for many of these known threats, we do have vaccines. If you have not yet been vaccinated for this year’s flu virus, now would be a good time to do so.
Whether it is the measles or the flu, there are many other responses that people might take. The other day, traveling through San Francisco airport, I noticed many people wearing surgical style masks. While such masks are unlikely to prevent you from contracting disease, they will help prevent you from transmitting to others. Surgeons wear masks to protect the patient, not themselves.
The most-effective preventive measure anyone can take to prevent the flu, or even novel coronavirus, is regular handwashing with warm water and soap. Avoid direct contact with others; this would be a good time to adopt the cultural practice of bowing rather than shaking hands. This brings me to the other reason for writing this piece. While it is important to know how to prevent transmission of any illness, it is just as important to know what does not.
Being Asian in the United States does NOT make one more likely to be a carrier of novel coronavirus.
Because the virus has been concentrated in China, some have taken the opportunity to validate their racist opinions of Chinese and other Asians. Among the first rumors to spread was the belief that the virus originated from someone eating bats. While the virus likely originated from bats, it more likely was transmitted to another animal and then to humans. Right now, we just don’t know enough to make any claims as to how it started, and certainly should not be pulling up 4-year-old pictures of someone eating bat soup. Food shaming has a long history for Asian Americans. We call them “lunchbox moments,” when someone at school, or maybe even work, makes fun of what you brought for lunch.
How will the Asian American community be impacted by the coronavirus? We have the lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak as one possible example. Chinatowns were isolated and the economic impact on the businesses was devastating. Perhaps the most glaring instance so far was a statement from the University of California at Berkeley affirming xenophobia as a common response to coronavirus anxiety. It is worth noting that the Berkeley student body was 31% Asian in 2017.
It should go without saying that racism and xenophobia are irrational and inappropriate responses to the coronavirus threat. UC Berkeley should know better. What I hope is more clear, however, is that the coronavirus at this time poses very little threat to us in the United States other than in the “what if” scenarios. We need to be aware of the virus, its symptoms and how it is transmitted, but getting up when someone Asian sits next to you on the bus is just as racist as it was in the 1960s on segregated buses.
We should hope that our country and others are employing all available resources to support the Chinese government in researching the virus and hopefully developing a vaccine before the virus does spread significantly beyond China’s borders. The Chinese government seems to have recognized both the error in its first response and the need to obtain help from the rest of the world and the World Health Organization has mobilized its resources.
I certainly don’t want to discourage people taking appropriate measures to prevent possible infections of any kind because we are in the middle of flu and cold season. The same strategies you would use to prevent novel coronavirus, will be just as effective in preventing the more imminent threat of the flu or the common cold.
What this crisis should reveal to all is the importance of preventive measures to stop communicable disease such as the flu, measles or chicken pox. We have vaccines that are usually highly effective in preventing disease, and hope to have one soon for novel coronavirus. Simple practices such as handwashing are especially helpful in preventing transmission. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing to protect others.
All of these strategies are much more effective in preventing the spread of disease than racism.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office. He also has an MPH/MHA (Master of Public Health/Master of Healthcare Administration).