"It feels like there's two viruses. COVID-19 … and fearful ignorance," Jeannie Mai writes in an essay for PEOPLE
Jeannie Mai
Credit: Jeannie Mai

Jeannie Mai is an Emmy-award winning co-host of The Real. In 2017, she executive produced the documentary Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking and is currently in production on the follow-up. She hosts the YouTube and podcast series Hello Hunnay and Listen Hunnay and also serves as a correspondent on ABC’s extreme mini-golf competition series Holey Moley. She is of Vietnamese and Chinese descent.

Each morning, I lift my head from my pillow, tap my alarm to reset it, see that my shades are still pulled down at 10 a.m. and remember, I’m in quarantine time. So, I grab my phone to get comfy and start scrolling through the news. CNN, BBC, The New York Times, Reddit … I search for coronavirus updates in the U.S., I mourn the hundreds of helpless lives lost each night in Italy, and sadly, I then absorb the devastating increase of prejudice, xenophobia, discrimination, violence and racism against Chinese people, people of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent and appearance around the world.

After receiving numerous vulgar remarks and racist memes on my own Instagram, I realize we all need to open up the discussion of Asian American-directed racial tension that has been caused by the novel coronavirus.

It feels like there’s two viruses. COVID-19 … and fearful ignorance.

One of the first viral videos exhibiting racism towards Asians was of the lone Chinese man in my hometown of San Francisco. He was collecting cans to recycle at a neighborhood he frequented, only to be attacked and mocked by a group of men shouting racial slurs. Even worse, while this man stood crying and pleading for the return of his cans, the onlookers from the neighborhood, ranging from small children to adults, just stared on.

On Feb. 13, Los Angeles authorities spoke out against a number of bullying incidents and assaults against the Asian-American community, including a middle-schooler being beaten and hospitalized. And later, a 16-year-old boy in San Fernando Valley was physically attacked by bullies in his high school who accused him of having the coronavirus because he is Asian-American.

On March 10, a Korean woman in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, was confronted on the street by somebody yelling “Where is your corona mask, you Asian bitch?” before punching the woman, dislocating her jaw. Later in the week, in Forest Hills, Queens, an Asian man walking with his 10-year-old son was harassed by a person yelling, “Where the f— is your mask? You f—ing Chinese bitch,” before being hit over the head. Another incident occurred on March 16 where a woman in Midtown Manhattan was spat upon and had her hair pulled by a woman who blamed her for coronavirus.

In the New York City subway, a woman wearing a face mask was punched and kicked by a man who called her “diseased.” Numerous other incidences of harassment of Asians on the New York City Subway followed, including one in which a person was seen spraying an Asian man with an unknown substance, another involving a man harassing an Asian couple wearing masks before the couple was chaperoned to safety, and one in which a woman was confronted by a man saying, “You’re Chinese, why did you bring corona to America?”.

Chinatown in Houston faced a drop in customers after people falsely and maliciously spread rumors online of an outbreak of the coronavirus. Restaurants in Chinatown in Boston have also lost customers due to fears of coronavirus. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo cited a report which estimated a 40 percent sales drop for Chinese businesses in Flushing, Queens, while other reports suggested the drop ranged from 30 to 80 percent.

Yes, the virus originated in China. Everyone already knows that. But do we all know that not all Asians are from China? And that not all Asians have coronavirus? Cuomo announced that the city’s Hate Crime Task Force was investigating a physical assault on an Asian woman in New York that appeared to have been triggered “by the bigoted notion that an Asian person is more likely to carry or transmit the novel coronavirus.”

“To be clear, there is zero evidence that people of Asian descent bear any additional responsibility for the transmission of the coronavirus,” he also said.

Viruses don’t discriminate against people of certain racial backgrounds. But clearly, people can. This strain of coronavirus may be new, but anti-Asian sentiment certainly isn’t. We should know that racism morosely runs deep within our American fibers. When anti-Asian attitudes remain, it can only take a little event, such as a politician’s rhetoric, calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “kung fu flu,” or the initiation of hate to bring bullying and harassment back out into the open.

So, let’s break this truth down to three simple understandings:

  1. Attempts to avoid people of Asian descent will not reduce your risk of getting infected by 2019-nCoV. The virus itself is quite equal opportunity, infecting anyone who happens to be close by and can be infected.
  2. We need to check our friends who make inappropriate jokes in our circles. Take action against hate crimes when we see it. Don’t be bystanders, be upstanders.
  3. And finally, your fear is no excuse to be racist to Asians. Racism won’t end racism.

We ARE going to get through this. We DO need one another to remain calm, positive and forward-thinking.

Let us NOT repeat the mistakes of our pasts to turn an entire race of people against one another. Let us stand up for and with each other in these dark times. Hate will get you sick, even if the virus doesn’t.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.