I was among the 19 million people watching last Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Nevada, the first really diverse state in the nation on the campaign trail. And while everyone beat up Mike Bloomberg, I was waiting to hear someone pounce on an even hotter topic that surely would have made an Asian Americans like myself lean in.
I’m talking about the Coronavirus a/k/a/ COVID-19. It’s a genuine crisis in China, where the latest stats show the virus with more than 75,000 confirmed cases, and over 2,300 deaths there.
A few cases are spreading world-wide, and it’s having an impact in the U.S. especially on college and campus communities home to international students and faculty members who may have been exposed while traveling in China.
In January, among the earliest cases of Coronavirus in the U.S. was a student at Arizona State University in Tempe and another at UMass in Boston. Other schools from Texas to Ohio to New York have been monitoring or quarantining returning students from Wuhan, China. In the meantime, Asian American businesses and individuals claim they are being hurt by an irrational fear of the disease.
So on debate night, I really didn’t want to hear the boilerplate on tuition free college, student loan relief or even Medicare-For-All. After nine debates, I know all the candidates positions by now. Right now it’s all about how a candidate performs in the moment. So I wanted to hear how a Sanders/Warren/Biden/Buttigieg/Klobuchar/Bloomberg administration would handle the growing public health matter of the moment.
Would they show compassion and sensitivity?
We already know the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue lacks the empathy to console and reassure the country in these situations. What about the people who want his job? Would they know how to protect the country from the virus of ignorance as well? Because that sort of malignancy seems to be spreading faster than we think.
The weekend before the debate, some students at the University of Albany actually thought it would be fun to attend a Coronavirus-themed party. The off-campus party was not an official university sanctioned event. But video of the party surfaced in social media showing a bucket full of Corona beers and a person with a surgical mask. Seen on the video was another white sheet marked with a biohazard symbol and two faces,” according to USA TODAY, which described the markings further. One face had Xs for eyes, and the second face was frowning with straight lines for eyes.
In response, the Asian American Alliance at the school released a statement condemning the party’s insensitivity. “The real life affects (sic) of this virus has led to not only mass stereotyping of Asian people, but also hundreds of deaths across the world, “ the organization’s statement read on Monday. “Diseases that affect non-white populations are radicalized in a way that stems from the innate xenophobia of American society.”
By last Thursday, the school said it would investigate, then released a campus-wide email that condemned the party.
“As a diverse community with students, faculty and staff from all over the world, it is important that we treat everyone with dignity and respect,” Clarence McNeill, the university’s dean of students reportedly said in the email.
The school may be off the hook for the party incident since it was hosted by an outside group. But there remains the broader responsibility to the students and faculty, for their physical and mental health, whether they have the disease or not. I’m sure we will see the situational stages of Albany’s transgression replicated on other campus communities in the near future. When it does, we all know the Rx.
Campus officials will need to calmly step up their communications game, responding to any new case of the Coronavirus with both urgency and transparency. And then they must reassure the entire community for the need for dignity and respect. The Albany party incident shows how the “ ignorance virus” spreads even faster than the coronavirus.
That’s why already educators and students at schools with sizeable Asian and Asian American populations, are warning of anti-Asian xenophobia that are part of our historical past.
It doesn’t have to be part of our future. At George Mason University in the Virginia/DC suburbs the school reportedly issued an email calling for “respect and tolerance.”
We need voices of reassurance now. The coronavirus is more than just a disruptor in our routines throughout society from the corporate world to higher ed, it is a diversity stress test for all.
It’s life or death. We must not let it be the crack that allows for a xenophobic hate to take hold and develop.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education blog. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok.