By Rivka Segal

We cannot allow the demonization of Asian Americans or any other population during a pandemic.

We are living in unprecedented times. A global pandemic with a colorful graphic attached to it has caused the president to declare a national emergency, and reports are the reach of COVID-19 will surpass the concern and financial implications of anything we have imagined in modern times.

But while our community struggles to respond to novel coronavirus, we are facing another outbreak: finger-pointing and scapegoating. Unfortunately, the two viruses appear inexorably linked — as coronavirus fears rise, our leaders and communities are displaying increasingly severe symptoms of bigotry.

As outbreaks of the virus cluster into geographic areas or within religious groups as a result of close quarters, it becomes clear we are fighting a virus on two fronts: with concerns of grave and potentially fatal physical illness; and group blaming which serves to destroy our communal sense of human connections though vile commentary and scapegoating.

And like with the biological disease, the social disease threatens to spiral out of control if we do not act quickly.

COVID-19 is not a foreign virus — it is a human virus. Coronavirus does not discriminate based on ethnic background or race, nor does it select its victims based on celebrity or anonymity. Anyone can contract and contribute to the spread of this disease.

But the thing spreading faster than the actual virus is fear. The truth is, none of us have never really dealt with a situation quite like this. To be sure, in the past few decades, there have been other pandemics — such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola — but those diseases, which spread quickly and indiscriminately in terms of “victims,” were limited in scope to a subset of the general public or particular continents. It was easier for people to compartmentalize their fears. 

Over the past few weeks, confusing and mixed messages, combined with a lack of understanding have caused several missteps. Well known people — without facts or understanding – have made fun of the situation or have unknowingly given visual mis-cues. 

As humans, our urge to find someone to blame is not new. In the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of causing the Bubonic Plague. In the early 19th century, Irish immigrants were blamed for cholera. The LGBTQ community was vilified during the AIDS epidemic. In each case, the accused community experienced marginalization, oppression and even violence.

Now with COVID-19, Asian Americans have become scapegoats. Even in the earliest days of the outbreak, our Asian American friends and neighbors experienced bigotry and discrimination. We’ve heard troubling reports of anti-Asian American bias across the country and here in Michigan, ranging from social avoidance to racist bullying in schools (including remarks from teachers or staff). Violent assaults against Asian Americans have been reported.

We must stand together to stop the spread of infectious scapegoating, and it starts at the top. Elected and appointed officials, including the secretary of state and the president, have deliberately referred to coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” “the Wuhan virus” and “the foreign virus.” This language is irresponsible and dangerous and can easily lead to a spike in hate-fueled incidents targeting Asian Americans.

Recently, our Michigan ADL office has received reports that people are targeting the Jewish community as well. As we have seen throughout history, when a group of people is blamed for illness, that community is at serious risk.

We all have a role in stopping the spread of the virus — physically and virtually. Scientists and medical professionals have clearly and consistently given practical responses to the biological virus and the steps we must take, and they will continue to do so as more facts emerge. Experts on hate and bigotry must lead in containing the spread of hate.

We must be thoughtful and practical. Just as we must practice good physical hygiene practices, we must also combat misinformation, conspiracy theories, scapegoating and bigotry. We call for leadership from the top and welcome allies at all levels. Let us come together as one community, in one country, and commit ourselves to working toward health and well-being for everyone.

Carolyn Normandin is the Regional Director of ADL Michigan.

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