Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Racism rises against NYC’s Asian residents as coronavirus spreads

In Chinese culture it is common to wear a facial mask to protect oneself against colds and flu as well as to protect others. Here in New York City, Chinese people say that their facial masks are sometimes misinterpreted as a sign of serious illness. Photo by Kathleen Taylor

As the coronavirus death toll continues to rise, incidents of racism and prejudice against New York’s Chinese population have reportedly increased. 

I think many of us may feel hurt and angry for those stigmatizations and discriminations,” said Yao Wang, President of the NYU Chinese Student Support Group. 

According to Worldometer, a live independent statistics website, there have been 45,222 reported infections to date and 1,118 people confirmed dead globally as a result of the coronavirus. Thirteen  infections have been reported in the US. There were six people in New York City who reportedly showed symptoms of the virus, but the city’s Department of Health has since declared all six to have tested negative for the virus.

In the wake of the outbreak, Wang said that there had been incidents of discrimination, insults and violence against students of Asian descent in New York City. Wang also said that anti-Asian rhetoric had been spread on social media. 

“Some offensive words on social media such as ‘Chinese Virus’, ‘Wuhan Virus’, and ‘Isolate Chinese People’ really break our hearts,” said Wang. 

Throughout social media, people have referred to the Coronavirus as “ChinaVirus” or “WuhanVirus”. Yao Wang, President of the NYU Chinese Student Support Group, says that these labels are hurtful as they encourage ethnic and regional prejudice.

Wang also referred specifically to anti-Chinese messages written in a bathroom at the Columbia School of Social Work as well as on a blackboard in the Columbia Main Library.

Kally Zhao, President of the NYU Chinese Students and Scholars Association, said that labeling this virus as “China Virus” is offensive.

“It’s deeply offensive because when there is a flu outbreak in the US no-one calls it ‘US virus’. And Zika and Ebola – no-one calls them by their origin. But all of a sudden because China is the country where this virus had its first outbreak it’s being named after a nationality and an ethnicity”. 

Comparing the current rhetoric to century-old anti-Asian sentiments, Zhao said “I’m just really surprised how people really didn’t make any progress since the Yellow Peril”.

Zhao said that incidents of anti-Asian discrimination, mandatory self-quarantining, and concern for family members in China are causing Chinese students a lot of stress.

“I think it’s definitely hard because first of all you’re by yourself and I think by being asked to self-quarantine there’s also certain connotations. And then if you talk to family members back home about it you know they may have certain feelings about it and basically it’s just a lot of stress on one person”.

Both NYU and Columbia have enforced a mandatory self-quarantining of all students returning from China. Students are required to stay in their homes and avoid contact with other people.

“I received a report of an incident where one of the international students who had a really high fever was sent to the hospital but the hospital refused to hospitalize her,” said Zhao. “So she was essentially sent home with medicine to be self quarantined”. 

A message found in a restroom at Columbia School of Social Work in New York City. Photograph shared by Yao Wang, President of the NYU Chinese Student Support Group.

But Chinese students are not the only people impacted by the virus. Mae Lee, Executive Director of the Chinese Progressive Association, said that small business owners in Chinatown are also suffering because of people avoiding Chinatown in fear of the Coronavirus.

“The small business owners say they’re getting noticeably less business,” said Lee. “Many of their business is from visitors who don’t live there so somebody’s reacting in terms of not coming down to Chinatown”.

Lee said this was unusual at this time of year as the Chinese Lunar New Year which took place over the past two weeks usually attracts more visitors.

But with no reported infections in the city, compared to thousands of influenza infections, health care providers say that people in the US should be more concerned with ordinary influenza than with the coronavirus. 

“We advise the community to be cautious, but not panic about the Coronavirus,” said Dr Perry Pong, Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in Chinatown. 

“Everyone should get their flu shot since we have seen an increase in flu cases during this flu season which have similar symptoms to the Coronavirus,”  said Dr. Pong.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported up to 12 million cases of flu-like symptoms and 310,000 hospitalizations related to the flu since flu season began on October 1. New York City is reported as having a high level of influenza-like illness (ILI), with 10 children having died of flu in the past week. Only 13 people have been confirmed infected with the Coronavirus in the US, none of which are in New York City.

“We ask people to just take appropriate hygienic precautions,” said Dr. Perry. “Wash your hands, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your arm if you cough or sneeze, and stay home if you are ill.”

In China, health authorities have suggested that as a precaution against the Coronavirus, along with washing hands regularly, people should wear surgical masks to avoid becoming infected and also to avoid infecting others. As such, many Chinese people in New York City have been wearing surgical masks as a precaution against the virus. However, many have found that surgical masks hold a stigma in the US which they do not back in China.

“I personally definitely notice when I am wearing a facial mask in public people are very hesitant to approach me,” said Zhao. “I get weird looks all the time”.

Zhao said that many Chinese people are now afraid to wear masks in public because of recent hate crimes against Asian people wearing masks.

Zhao referred specifically to a video that has spread throughout social media platforms showing a man violently attacking a woman of Asian descent who is wearing a facial mask. The event occurred at Grand Street station on February 2nd and the woman who posted the video claimed that the attacker called the victim a “diseased bitch” before hitting her over the head with an umbrella.

Wang said that a lot of prejudice originates from misunderstanding around the wearing of masks.

“In China, it’s very common to wear masks in our daily life. People may wear masks if they have a cold, if they’re allergic to pollen or dust, facing hazy weather, or even if they have no make-up on.”

But Wang said that here in the US, wearing a mask is interpreted as a sign of serious illness. This has lead to stigmatization and discrimination around the wearing of masks.

“Some people fear to wear masks on the street even if they have a cold and just don’t want to infect others,” said Wang.

As Chinese New Yorkers worry about families and friends back home, Lee urged fellow New Yorkers to visit Chinatown, to speak to people within the Chinese community, and to take steps to learn more about the situation and what Chinese people are currently going through.

“The virus is the illness,” said Lee. “It’s not the person.”




Other Stories in Special Report: Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Life returns to the East Village

Quincy Walter May 5, 2021

Reopening for Ramadan

Hassan Abbas May 4, 2021

And the band played on

Xavier Bartaburu May 2, 2021

Queens residents mourn at Covid vigil

Annie Burky May 2, 2021

Floating for Free: COVID and the Staten Island Ferry

Trish Rooney May 2, 2021

COVID-19 has left many Black and Hispanic landlords in serious debt

Norah Hogan April 24, 2021

Village East movie theater reopens to the public

Inga Parkel April 13, 2021

Chinese adoptions halted by COVID

Inga Parkel March 24, 2021

Remote is the new workplace normal

Courtney Guarino March 24, 2021

One year of COVID-19 in New York City

Michelle Diaz March 16, 2021

COVID long haulers deal with lingering symptoms and doubt

Kaity Assaf March 5, 2021

Pandemic Weddings

Chuyan Jiang March 2, 2021

Pandemic fatigue 101

Chuyan Jiang February 28, 2021

Yankee Stadium becomes COVID-19 vaccine site for Bronx residents only

Michelle Diaz February 24, 2021

The queer community rallies behind their sacred spaces closed because of COVID-19

Inga Parkel February 23, 2021

Street vendors struggle as New Yorkers and tourists stay home

Norah Hogan February 13, 2021

Keeping the faith in COVID-19

Courtney Guarino February 3, 2021

Little Italy’s restaurants need indoor dining to survive pandemic

Michelle Diaz February 2, 2021

Stray pets find homes and love during pandemic

Inga Parkel February 1, 2021

No Actors, But the Show Goes On

James Pothen December 5, 2020

New York City, a place of refuge 

Edith Rousselot December 4, 2020

Commuting in a pandemic world

Michelle Diaz December 3, 2020

Battling food insecurities during a pandemic

Courtney Guarino December 3, 2020


Justin McGown December 3, 2020

Honk!: Cars earn a special spot in 2020

Luana Harumi December 3, 2020

Working out looks very different during a pandemic

Chuyan Jiang December 2, 2020

One kitchen’s transformation in the age of isolation

Isabel Beer December 2, 2020

Nursing homes are filled with sadness and loss during pandemic shut down

Inga Parkel December 1, 2020

The show goes on

Norah Hogan December 1, 2020

Loyal members help keep independent cinemas afloat

Courtney Guarino December 1, 2020

Musicians deal with the reality of no live shows as covid takes center stage

Paola Michelle Ortiz December 1, 2020

 Black Friday’s Aftermath

Sughnen Yongo November 30, 2020

The Spirit of Little Haiti

Savannah Daniels October 14, 2020

Small business owners hope for future relief

Courtney Guarino October 2, 2020

Brooklyn Book Festival held virtually

Chuyan Jiang September 28, 2020

NYC Restaurant owners worry about maintaining business during winter 

Isabel Beer September 27, 2020

The pandemic is causing mental health struggles for many Latinos

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 24, 2020

Politically divided family can agree on one thing, rallies are bad during a pandemic

Michelle Diaz September 23, 2020

New Yorkers are vulnerable to mental issues due to pandemic

Sughnen Yongo September 23, 2020

Healthcare professionals struggle with Trump’s decisions during pandemic

Tori Luecking September 23, 2020

Some Americans Say “Not So Fast” on Operation Warp Speed

James Pothen September 23, 2020

Trump voters unfazed by morality of Trump’s Covid response

Norah Hogan September 22, 2020

Trump rallies continue, despite the rising Covid-19 death toll

Isabel Beer September 22, 2020

Latinos weigh in on President Trump’s management of the pandemic

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 21, 2020

Fast track vaccine causes fear

Kaity Assaf September 21, 2020

It’s business as usual at McSorley’s Old Ale House

Tori Luecking September 20, 2020

Trump defiance to hold indoor rallies amidst COVID-19 sparks polarized responses 

Courtney Guarino September 20, 2020

NYC Cafes and restaurants try and survive the pandemic

Isabel Beer September 19, 2020

A typical afternoon at Shade Bar NYC

Kaity Assaf September 19, 2020

West Village staple, Caffe Reggio, remains open for outdoor dining in the wake of coronavirus restrictions 

Norah Hogan September 19, 2020