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From the Executive Director: COVID-19 to Xenophobia: What Would a Reasonable Response Be?

By March 17, 2020 No Comments

David Inoue

One of the most-troubling aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the hatred directed towards those of us of Asian heritage.

Sometimes it can be as subtle as the person sitting next to us on the bus moves to another seat farther away. Or it could be institutionalized, as in UC Berkeley’s infamous Instagram post validating possible feelings of xenophobia towards Asians.

At its worst, it has manifested as open hostility, including bullying of children in schools and acts such as even within the past day, a woman spitting on and pulling the hair of an Asian woman.

It does not help when our supposed leaders continue to refer to the virus as the “Chinese virus.” References such as this stoke the flames of xenophobia and give implicit permission to these acts of hate. Certainly, these are not rational responses to the virus.

As Asians have become fearful of being the target of harassment, some have decided that the best way to fight these attacks is to arm themselves. Multiple articles in recent days have indicated an increasing number of Asians are purchasing guns in response to the xenophobia they have faced, along with hundreds of others who just think they will need a gun to protect themselves during this pandemic.

It’s also quite possible that the stories have been drummed up by the gun stores themselves to sell more guns. The general phenomenon is also not confined to Asian Americans, though the motives may be different. Gun sales are being reported as spiking overall.

Regardless of the veracity of the tales of increasing gun sales, I can emphatically state that a gun is not an appropriate response to COVID-19-inspired hate, nor to the virus in general. It is ironic that as public health has come to the forefront in our battle with the virus, we must also turn to public health statistics to demonstrate why this response is shortsighted and the wrong response. Fear is powerful and is driving many of these disproportionate responses to COVID-19 and xenophobic threats, whether it is buying huge quantities of toilet paper or a gun.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control compiled by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, on average, 21 children are shot by a gun every day. Of those, eight are shot unintentionally by a family member.

Of the 313 people shot on a daily basis, 90 are unintentional and 73 are attempted suicide. Of those 73, 60 are successful.

What should be clear is that guns are more likely to result in the unintentional death or injury of a loved one than actually used in self-defense. And with more guns in the hands of new owners with little training, the potential for disaster is likely even greater. Even more frightening is the fact that many children are spending more time at home during this crisis, further creating the chance for a catastrophe with a new firearm in the home, likely without an experienced owner to take appropriate precautions.

Ironically, if someone really wants to shoot someone harassing them about COVID-19, they likely already have what they need: a smartphone with a camera. In today’s age of viral videos, one of the most effective defenses against this type of harassment is the use of video evidence both by the police and the public. And ultimately, that is where the priority needs to be, reporting incidents to the police.

Anecdotal stories are important and there are ways to report those as well, but most important is that the police are aware of these incidents so they can respond more effectively and forcefully. If they are not told of the problem in your community, they will not recognize it and will not respond. And if this is happening to one person, it is likely happening to five or 10 more. Just as we are seeking to diagnose more cases of COVID-19, we need to diagnose more incidents of xenophobia and hatred.

In addition to reporting to the police, it is important that we track the information as a community. There are two websites you can visit to report hate-based incidents. Asian Americans Advancing Justice has a site at https://www.standagainsthatred.org/ and OCA Asian Pacific Advocates has a similar site at https://www.ocanational.org/aapi-hate-incident-form.

JACL chapters should be available to support anyone who is a victim of a hate crime throughout the reporting process, but perhaps more importantly in the longer term response. Experiencing trauma can leave scars and counseling might be just as important as obtaining criminal justice.

JACL, AAJC, OCA and many other organizations nationally and in your local community are all working to advocate for less inflammatory language in describing COVID-19, not referring to it as a “Chinese virus” or blaming China or Asia for its development. We are also combating the use of unnecessary Asian imagery in the news and on websites. Hopefully these efforts will be successful in reducing the prejudice, but if you are the victim of hatred due to COVID-19, please respond appropriately and report it to the police and seek help.

Don’t take justice into your own hands with potentially devastating results.

David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based at the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.