The lab-leak hypothesis has emerged as one of two leading theories for how covid-19 began. As a physician, I believe it’s crucial to understand the origin of the pandemic and prevent future ones. As a Chinese American, I worry that unproven speculation could increase racist attacks against Chinese people and further fuel anti-Asian hate.
This is not a hypothetical concern. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people of Asian descent have been blamed for coronavirus, and harassed and assaulted as a result. In Texas, a man allegedly stabbed three members of an Asian American family, including children ages 2 and 6, because they were “Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus.” A medical student was assaulted near her hospital in New York City, with the perpetrator shouting “Chinese virus.” In Boston, a doctor taking care of covid-19 patients was followed as she left the hospital by someone who shouted profanities and asked her why the Chinese were killing people. According to the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, more than 6,600 anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander incidents have been reported between March 2020 and March 2021.
President Donald Trump fanned the flames with his repeated use of “China virus,” “Chinese plague” and “kung flu.” He and his allies claimed the virus was “sent over from China.” Research has found that the proliferation of these terms over social media directly led to a rise in racist posts against Asian people. It’s not hard to imagine that increased rhetoric about careless or even reckless Chinese scientists could provoke more acts of harm against AAPI communities.
Over the past two weeks, as the theory has gained traction that the pandemic might have been touched off by an accidental release from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, I’ve experienced an uptick in racist hate mail, above the steady baseline levels I’ve received daily since last March. At the same time, I’ve received frantic messages from older Asian American people terrified by reports of other members of our community who have been beaten, set on fire, left for dead or murdered.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) tells me that she has been hearing an escalation of worry from her constituents. “So many are concerned that after a year of AAPIs being blamed for coronavirus, this could further hatred and discrimination,” she said. “We need to get to the truth, and we need to be careful in our messaging so as to not further stoke the flames of xenophobia.”
But surely it isn’t difficult to distinguish between investigating a country’s leadership and directing animus toward an entire people. Except history, of course, gives us context and reason to raise the alarm. Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au, a physician herself, points to past instances in the United States of linking Asian immigrants to “infiltration, infection and contagion.”
She and Chu both mentioned the pervasive stereotype of AAPIs as the “perpetual foreigner”; in times of upheaval, anger and stress, it’s easy to scapegoat those labeled “other.”
None of this is to say that a scientific investigation shouldn’t proceed. It should, and, indeed, Chu urges that we “respect the investigation as a scientific and not political process.” This means politicians should follow scientific principles and gather evidence objectively. No one should jump to conclusions or cherry-pick data to fit a predetermined conclusion.
Scientific investigations take time, and it may be years before we find a definitive answer. It took 14 years to prove that another coronavirus, SARS, was transmitted from bats to civet cats to humans, and the sources of many Ebola outbreaks have never been found. Lack of definitive evidence should prompt more searching, not latching on to an unproven hypothesis because it suits a partisan aim.
Words matter, and politicians and members of the news media need to be more careful with theirs. If they are opining about negative actions of the Chinese government or individual scientists, they should say that rather than use blanket terminology to criticize “China” or “the Chinese.” They should also remind the public that questioning the actions of government authorities should not be equated with distrust or hatred of the Chinese people — or of Chinese Americans or others of Asian heritage.
I also think it helps to name the problem: Many will be justifiably upset if evidence emerges pointing to culpability for this unspeakably awful tragedy. But nothing justifies turning one’s rage into violence against innocent individuals.
Importantly, everyone needs to stop using the language of “China virus.” The World Health Organization urges against naming diseases for geographic origins to avoid stigmatizing people. This is not about policing speech but about reducing associations that have led to people who look a certain way being beaten and killed.
Together, we can assert that while we need to understand the origins of coronavirus, it’s critical to proceed in a way that recognizes the sensitivities and prevents the next escalation of anti-Asian racism and hate.