Long before health officials had confirmed the first cases of COVID-19 in the United States, acts of discrimination and xenophobia against Asian Americans were rising rapidly. As the number of confirmed cases increase exponentially, racist hate crimes targeting Asian Americans are also on the rise, escalated by racist language used by public officials and members of the media when discussing COVID-19.
During a March 11 incident in New York City, a Korean woman was punched in the face, grabbed by her hair, and yelled at for not wearing a mask while entering a building. Parents have reported increased bullying and racist taunting in K–12 schools. Universities have received criticism for normalizing xenophobia and providing inadequate support for Asian students who may be on its receiving end.
The rise in anti-Asian xenophobia has had tangible economic consequences for Asian small-business owners. In mid-February, with only 15 confirmed US cases and before social distancing policies were in effect, small businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown reported sales drops of between 40 to 80 percent, as the virus spread in China.
The shift in public treatment of Asian Americans from a “model minority” to the “yellow peril” to scapegoat amid a public health crisis is not without precedent. Throughout history—from the Black Death to Ebola—xenophobia and public health policy have been strongly linked and have often involved scapegoating people of non-white races and ethnicities.
In light of this history, policymakers and public officials can take the following evidence-backed actions to mitigate the racism and xenophobia spreading in the wake of COVID-19, prevent further misinformation, and support vulnerable Asian American communities.
Use language supported by scientists and public health officials when referring to COVID-19
In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued best practices for naming new infectious diseases in response to cases when disease names provoked a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities or created unjustified barriers to travel, commerce, and trade.
WHO specifically instructs people outside of the scientific community to avoid using geographic locations in disease names. Best practices, like in the case of COVID-19 (coronavirus disease of 2019), include incorporating the pathogen in the disease name.
Disseminate accurate and accessible COVID-19 information to the public
Getting accurate information in the hands of the public is critical during public health crises, when collective anxiety is already running high. WHO has warned against the large amount of misinformation circulating related to COVID-19. Public officials should promote evidence-based best practices for preventing transmission of COVID-19, such as handwashing and keeping a safe distance, and avoid stigmatizing language or fearmongering.
Any information should also be disseminated in multiple languages (PDF) and accompanied by community outreach to better reach elderly immigrant/non-English speaking populations who may face language barriers but are at a higher risk of falling ill.
Denounce rising discrimination and hate crimes against Asian Americans
Civil rights and racial justice organizations have issued a joint call to action denouncing the increase in discrimination against Asian Americans related to COVID-19, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus drafted a letter urging public officials to help prevent the spread of misinformation that can increase public anxiety and incite violence amid a public health crisis. Public officials can also support the work of nongovernmental organizations by holding people who commit discriminatory acts accountable.
Enact policies that support vulnerable workers and small businesses through the crisis
More than 2 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers work in the health care, transportation, and service industries and may be more vulnerable to changes in health or economic stability from COVID-19.
Last week, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which took important first steps to make testing for COVID-19 available at no cost for people who are insured and to require employers to provide paid sick leave to employees with some exceptions.
Under the new law, health care providers can be exempted from providing paid sick leave for their employees, who may be most vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19. The new law also leaves out requirements for companies with more than 500 employees to provide paid sick leave. Closing loopholes and extending paid sick leave to all vulnerable workers is important to consider as additional legislation develops.
Policymakers will also need to take further action to expand unemployment insurance and support small businesses experiencing closures and sales declines. Approximately two million American small businesses are owned by Asian Americans, and they lead other groups in hiring rates. California and New York have the most Asian-owned small businesses, and both states have now implemented shelter-in-place policies in response to increasing cases of COVID-19.
Expand community outreach for federal safety net programs
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act also increased federal funding for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Although this is crucial for responding to increased need for health care and food assistance, data show social services are not reaching low-income Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who need assistance.
In 2014, Asian Americans represented 17.9 percent of New York City residents living below the federal poverty level, yet Asian American organizations received only 1.5 percent of total contract dollars from New York City’s Department of Social Services. Since then, barriers to accessing social safety net services have increased for Asian American immigrant communities, as the “public charge” rule has discouraged immigrant families from participating in programs like Medicaid and SNAP. In 2018, Asian Americans made up 2.9 percent of households receiving SNAP, despite making up 4.7 percent of Americans with incomes below the federal poverty level.
Given these barriers, public officials should prioritize outreach to Asian Americans seniors who are at higher risk of falling ill from exposure to COVID-19, have higher poverty rates relative to all elderly Americans, and are more likely to face language barriers when accessing social services.
Provide resources for people affected by hate crimes and other acts of discrimination
Last Thursday, Asian American nonprofit organizations launched an online reporting center where people can report the location and details of discrimination they experience. Since then, the website has collected reports of more than 150 cases, ranging from microaggressions to verbal and physical assault.
As hate crimes and other acts of discrimination increase in the wake of COVID-19, public officials can support Asian American communities by providing resources that are harder for nongovernmental organizations to provide, such as access to mental health care for those affected.
Although many communities face risks to health and well-being, some Asian Americans are experiencing additional challenges. To confront anti-Asian racism now, policymakers and public officials can provide resources to those affected by mounting discrimination, disseminate accurate information, and act swiftly to enact policies to support communities who may be especially vulnerable during this crisis.