#JeNeSuisPasUnVirus: Anti-Asian Racism during COVID-19

By Jackie Howell

COVID-19 does not discriminate, but people do. Anti-Asian violence has spiked since the start of the pandemic. Are these hate crimes tied to Trump and the far-right’s racist messages of blame?

Asian communities are fighting two pandemics at once. From labelling COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” to vowing to “make China pay,” far-right populists have used COVID-19 as an excuse to further their anti-immigrant and racist agendas. 

Anti-Asian Racism around the World      

Public figures have increasingly made derogatory or xenophobic remarks targeting Asians and people of Asian descent. The significant rise in hate crimes in North America, Europe, and practically everywhere else marks a new danger for East Asians, Southeast Asians, and Pacific Islanders.

As infections spread across the U.S., President Trump repeatedly pushed the disproved theory that COVID-19 originated from a Chinese lab. In March 2020, Representative Judy Chu estimated that 100 hate crimes were being committed against Asian Americans each day. Asian-American businesses have been vandalized with racist tags, and random Asian individuals have been assaulted, harassed, and shunned. By April 2020, three in ten Americans blamed China or Chinese people for the virus.

Since March 2020, Canada has had a higher number of anti-Asian racism reports per capita than the United States. Asian Canadians have experienced verbal threats, graffiti, micro-aggressions, and physical confrontations. Asian Canadian women have been impacted the most, accounting for 60% of all reported incidents.

Anti-Asian violence has been reported across Europe. Hate crimes have increased in the U.K., as the far-right continues to use COVID-19 as an excuse to attack Asians. French Asians have reported abuse on public transit and social media by using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (“I’m not a virus”). Europe’s far-right nationalists have blamed Asians for spreading COVID-19, contributing to their anti-immigrant and xenophobic conspiracy theories.

In 2015, the World Health Organization urged governments not to name viruses after geographic locations, people’s names, or terms that would incite undue fear. COVID-19 highlights the negative impacts of nicknaming a pandemic after a country, as the rise in anti-Chinese messages has led to more attacks and racial division. Even political leaders have spread racist messages. Brazil’s education minister suggested that COVID-19 is part of China’s plan for world domination.

Historical Roots of Anti-Asian Racism

Anti-Asian racism is not a new concept in the West. The recent resurgence in anti-Asian racism is similar to incidents during the SARS epidemic. Disease fosters fears, which far-right parties have exploited to urge border closures and toughen immigration restrictions. When a crisis strikes, panic and fear can lead to acts of bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. COVID-19 is no exception.

Asian immigrants have historically been the target of discriminatory policies. With the influx of Asian immigrants, fears of an “Asian invasion” in North America led to the head tax (Canada) and the Chinese Exclusion Act (U.S. and Canada), which aimed to discourage Chinese immigration. In 1907, an anti-immigration rally exploded into three days of violence and vandalism in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japantown, now known as the “Anti-Asian Riots.”  During World War II, war propaganda depicted the Japanese as “crafty” and “cunning,” leading to the internment of thousands of innocent Japanese immigrants in the U.S. and Canada.

From spreading anti-Semitism to mistreating the Roma population, Europe cannot deny its racist past. After World War II, far-right parties rebranded and began to argue against immigration. The far-right continues to spread its anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric – but they are not the only problem. Media outlets in Europe have continuously produced anti-Asian images and stereotypes when reporting on COVID-19. France’s Le Courier Picard caused an outcry after pairing the headline “Alerte jaune” (Yellow Alert) with the image of a Chinese woman wearing a protective mask. Images that associate Asians with COVID-19 fuel the far-right’s racist conspiracy theories.

The COVID-19 Blame Game

Far-right parties continue to push the narrative that Asians are to blame for the pandemic. In the long-term, the social and economic impacts of lockdowns and slow vaccine rollouts risk alienating the demographics that far-right groups target for recruitment. Governments and media must stop using images of Asians wearing masks when discussing COVID-19. Otherwise, the media will continue to perpetuate the narrative that all Asians carry the virus.

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