The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 2003 SARS outbreak fueled anti-Asian racism. Coronavirus doesn’t have to.

History tells us that racism will only escalate further as it is fanned by growing anxiety .

A sign in an isolation ward section at the Jinnah Post Graduate Medical Center (JPMC) in Karachi, Pakistan. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

Pacific Mall — North America’s largest indoor Asian mall — always hums with life, as a constant wave of shoppers converses loudly over the gentle roar of shopkeepers hawking their wares. A fixture of one of the several Chinese ethnic enclaves in Toronto, Pacific Mall attracts throngs of both Chinese Canadian and non-Chinese shoppers who flock there to buy groceries, sample food from different Chinese cuisines at the mall’s food courts or wander the aisles of stores selling imported clothes, jewelry, skin care products, electronics and more. As a high school student, I volunteered as a tutor for an after-school program at the mall. Several days a week, I would ride the bus north from my high school to push my way through the bustling crowds. After class, I would slip among the swarm of window-shoppers, and peruse the storefronts as I waited to be picked up to go home.

That’s why the images of Pacific Mall from 2003 are so eerie. For months, Pacific Mall (like many Chinatowns across North America) was uncharacteristically silent and deserted, a multistoried, fiberglass ghost town. In 2003, news of a local SARS outbreak led to a racial panic, and over the course of that spring, Torontonians enacted an informal boycott of the Chinese community that stigmatized Asian Canadians and devastated Asian-owned small businesses. By some estimates, Asian-owned small-businesses lost up to 80 percent of their income that year from the SARS scare.

The real danger of coronavirus

Nearly two decades later, we are poised to repeat that history as fears of a new coronavirus — a cousin of the SARS virus — mount throughout the United States. After initial reports last month, the number of confirmed infections continues to climb. Most cases of coronavirus infection are in regions of central China, where the outbreak originated, but patients with the virus have also been reported in nearly 20 countries, including the United States. At least two of those American coronavirus patients are in Southern California, mere minutes from where I now live.

Just as in 2003 with SARS, we again face a possible global outbreak of a new and relatively unknown virus. Like many, I’m concerned about steps we can take to prevent and limit coronavirus spread. But after experiencing firsthand the hostile racial climate of the SARS outbreak in 2003 in Toronto and across the United States, I’m equally nervous about how rising anti-Asian racism fueled by fear of coronavirus will affect Asian American communities in the coming months.

Almost as soon as it emerged, the SARS virus was racialized within the popular imagination and inextricably linked to images of the Asian body as disease vectors. Media outlets writing about SARS frequently illustrated their stories with images of Chinatown buildings or Asian people wearing face masks, even when those images bore little connection to the contents of the story. For example, a 2003 Globe and Mail article titled “Settlers Quarantined to Contain Disease” that highlighted historic quarantines in late-19th and early-20th-century Canada was illustrated in the paper’s print edition with an image of primary-aged schoolchildren in Hong Kong wearing face masks. Some journalists linked the SARS outbreak to sensationalized accounts of Chinese open-air wet markets, Chinese consumption of “weird” meat and China’s “unsanitary” practices. Health officials concerned with preventing the virus’s spread focused their attention on Asian ethnic enclaves.

The Canadian and American general public adopted their own informal avoidance measures that led to acute stigmatization of Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans and other Asian Americans, seemingly overnight. Subway riders refused to sit next to Asian passengers. Businesses turned away Asian customers. Asian workers found their hours scaled back. Shoppers avoided Asian-owned restaurants and small businesses, or steered clear of Chinatowns altogether. Some Asian-facing organizations received a deluge of racist hate mail blaming them for SARS.

Fighting coronavirus with travel bans is a mistake

The racialization of disease is not new. History is rife with examples of nonwhite groups serving as scapegoats during public health scares. In the late 1800s, for example, racial anxiety over the nation’s growing nonwhite populations drove Yellow Peril fears of Asian immigrants as threats to the white social order. Asians were quickly stereotyped as immoral, unsanitary, prone to consuming “foul” meats like rats, and carriers of diseases like leprosy or smallpox. Historic ethnic enclaves — such as San Francisco’s Chinatown — arose out of white city settlers’ disdain for Asian bodies sharing white people’s gathering spaces, and from efforts to quarantine Chinese people and their “unwholesome” practices in slums far away from city centers. Nevertheless, during (often unrelated) public outbreaks of illness, Chinatown residents were targeted, stigmatized and shunned.

Disease racialization compounds preexisting racial anxieties with acute fears of the dangers posed by an unknown disease. However, racist manifestations of disease-related fears don’t confer any public health benefit; instead, they serve primarily as a form of racist catharsis at the expense of stigmatized racial groups. Studies of the SARS outbreak in 2003 found that interpersonal stigmatization of Chinese and Filipino Canadians in Toronto exacerbated a tense racial climate while it did nothing to prevent new SARS infections: person-to-person transmission in that outbreak was mostly between patients and their primary health-care workers, not street-level interpersonal contact. The current racist backlash against Chinese wet markets as coronavirus’s source ignore the growing science that challenges this premise. Meanwhile, scientists point out that the general public’s most effective protection against contracting SARS, coronavirus, or even the flu virus is frequent hand-washing — not racism.

Nevertheless, racist vitriol has already permeated online conversation about the coronavirus. An uncanny echo of historic anti-Asian stereotypes dating back to more than a century ago, tweets about the coronavirus have been awash with complaints of Chinese people as “backward,” “disgusting,” “dirty” and having “gross” eating practices. Some call the death of Chinese people by coronavirus “karma.” Online comments sections for Chinese restaurants are being bombarded with racist remarks. In a suburb north of Toronto, 8,000 people signed a petition demanding that a local school board bar any child with a family member who had recently traveled to China from attending school. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have taken that suggestion a step further and have called for the United States to ban all Chinese travelers, regardless of whether they have traveled to a region with an active coronavirus outbreak. Schoolteacher friends tell me that racist bullying among school-aged children has already begun. Asian Americans are taking to social media to recount their own experiences this past week with racist microaggressions that range from sidelong glares to open hostility.

York University Professor of Environmental Studies Roger Keil, who studied the racialization of SARS, tweeted last week a plea that we challenge racialization in the coronavirus outbreak, saying: “Racism is a weapon of mass infection.” Sadly, this warning might be coming too late. History tells us that racism will only escalate further as it is fanned by growing anxiety of a coronavirus pandemic, and after our experiences with the 2003 SARS outbreak, the Asian American community is once again bracing for impact.

Diseases don’t discriminate along racial lines — but too often people do.