Stunned at first, then relieved she was not physically attacked, Li is now saddened and angered by the irony that she spends her days and nights helping save lives. Her work inserting tubes in patients’ airways has grown riskier since the coronavirus emerged — each procedure releasing droplets and secretions that could carry viral particles.
“I’m risking my own personal health, and then to be vilified just because of what I look like,” said Li, 28, wary that one of her patients, too, could harbor such prejudices. “I try not to think about that possibility when I’m at work taking care of patients. But it’s always there, at the very back of my mind.”
Across the country, Asian American health-care workers have reported a rise in bigoted incidents. The racial hostility has left Asian Americans, who represent 6 percent of the U.S. population but 18 percent of the country’s physicians and 10 percent of its nurse practitioners, in a painful position on the front lines of the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Some covid-19 patients refuse to be treated by them. And when doctors and nurses leave the hospital, they face increasing harassment in their daily lives, too.
“People are worried about transmission of a disease that they associate with foreignness and Asian faces,” said Grace Kao, a Yale University sociologist. “Nothing erases what we look like.”
There is no comprehensive data measuring anti-Asian bias during the pandemic. An analysis of self-reported incidents by Russell Jeung, chairman of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University, shows a steady rise in reports of harassment and assault against Asians since mid-March, with twice as many women than men saying they have been mistreated.
Jeung, who is researching racism and xenophobia amid the pandemic, said a multilingual website set up by his department in a partnership with civil rights groups to document anti-Asian harassment has recorded more than 1,800 reports since its March 19 launch. Victims said they were spat on, stabbed while shopping, shunned for wearing masks and barred from entering ride-hailing vehicles.
Some academic experts on race say President Trump’s rhetoric around the virus and China has contributed to the rise in racial harassment. For weeks, Trump deliberately referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” despite guidance from public health officials to avoid attaching locations or ethnicity to a disease. He has since tweeted that Asian Americans are not to be blamed for the virus’s spread.
“Words matter. People are making that close association between the virus and Chinese people because he insisted on using that term,” Jeung said.
During a media briefing last week, Trump lashed out at CBS News White House correspondent Weijia Jiang, who is Chinese American, telling her to “Ask China!” after she questioned him on why he insisted on making testing a global competition at a time when so many lives are being lost. Jiang previously tweeted that a White House official had called the virus “the Kung-Flu” to her face.