For the last few weeks, whenever I spoke with my parents on the phone, they would urge me and my sister to wear face masks whenever we left our apartment.
In response, I would tell them that masks don’t prevent you from contracting the coronavirus. It only helps prevent you from getting others sick if you have the virus. And since neither my sister nor I were sick, we didn’t have the need to wear masks yet.
Of course, I should’ve stopped to think about the fact that people can still spread the virus even if they don’t exhibit symptoms. Wearing a face mask isn’t about protecting yourself. It’s about protecting others.
But in those conversations with my parents, I wasn’t thinking about any of this.
Instead, I was thinking about how using a face mask to cover my Asian face could put me in danger.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, people of Asian descent have been targets of racist and violent attacks around the world because the first cases just happened to be in China. Wearing a mask can draw attention (maybe not so much anymore as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends we wear cloth face coverings when we’re in public settings) and lead people to assume that that person is sick and could infect others.
And it hasn’t helped that major news outlets would often use images of people wearing face masks in Asian countries (a common practice pre-outbreak to protect themselves from air pollution) or Chinatowns when reporting on the coronavirus. In addition, reports during those early days often referred to the illness as the “Chinese virus.”
On Feb. 13, the Asian American Journalist Association called on news outlets to “exercise care in their coverage of the coronavirus outbreak,” urging journalists to consider why they are choosing to run certain images and to avoid the terms “‘Wuhan virus,’ ‘China coronavirus,’ or ‘Chinese coronavirus,’ or any other term that uses geographic locations or refers to a population to describe the virus.”
Now, for those who want to argue that diseases have long been named after geographical regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidelines in 2015 on “naming new human infectious diseases to minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people.”
“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security with WHO, said in the guidelines report. “We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”
Not-so-fun fact: The Spanish flu, which lasted from 1918-20, infected about a quarter of the world’s population at the time (about 500 million people) and took the lives of anywhere between 17 million and 50 million people. It was named for Spain because early reports of the illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the United States were censored to keep morale up during World War I. Spain, however, was neutral and journalists were free to report on the pandemic there, thus creating a false impression that the country was especially hard hit. There are statements and reports that the outbreak actually started in Kansas.
‘We should all be offended’
Fast forward to present day and we are seeing just what can happen when illnesses are named after geographic locations or a group of people.
According to ABC News, federal law enforcement has warned that hate crimes against Asian Americans in the United States will increase as the COVID-19 outbreak continues.
A report compiled by the FBI’s Houston office and distributed to local law enforcement agencies nationwide states that the “FBI makes this assessment based on the assumption that a portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations,” ABC News reports.
As I saw more reports about people of Asian descent being targeted, I reached out to law enforcement agencies throughout the Eastside to see what, if anything, has been happening in our communities.
Chief Steve Mylett of the Bellevue Police Department (BPD) told me that since COVID-19 arrived in the region, they have seen a surge in firearm transfers in Bellevue, as well as in applications for concealed pistol licenses. Last month, BPD saw an increase of more than 300 percent in its firearm transfer applications. Mylett said in a typical month, they receive about 158 applications. From March 1-23, they had 640.
Although he has seen firearm applications increase in other situations such as during election season when the Second Amendment becomes an issue of discussion and debate, he said it has been “nothing like this,” referring to what they have seen recently. And as they looked at the data, he said, they realized that many of the applicants’ surnames were of Chinese descent.
“That was unusual for the number of applications we were receiving,” Mylett said.
The New York Times also reported on this trend of people of Chinese descent in other parts of the country purchasing guns to protect themselves and their families.
This trend prompted Mylett to call a meeting with the department’s Asian/Pacific Islander advisory council. That was when he learned that Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants in Bellevue have been on the receiving end of bigotry and biased-based incidents as a result of the outbreak.
While this may have been the case, Mylett said they have only received one actual report of a biased-based incident involving members of the Asian/Pacific Islander community: On March 18, it was reported that someone went to a local Asian restaurant posing as a utility worker and telling the owner they were going to be shut down due to violations and saying, “Your people brought coronavirus, you’re a dead man.”
Mylett said people who are misinformed about the COVID-19 outbreak are trying to blame individuals for the pandemic when no individual is to blame. To put people in fear for their safety, he said, is shameful.
“We all should be offended,” Mylett said, adding that no one has the right to make another person feel so fearful that they arm themselves to protect themselves.
Hearing from everybody
Mylett said they know other incidents have occurred but nothing has been reported to his department. So he has made an appeal to the community — with an emphasis on Bellevue’s Chinese community — to get people to report incidents if and when they occur.
“We need to know,” Mylett said.
To encourage people to report, BPD will be holding a virtual town hall with the police chief and Det. Zhong Zhu. The meeting was originally scheduled for April 2 but had to be rescheduled after an employee became ill. A new date has not been set yet for the meeting, which will address the public’s concerns about hate crimes and/or bias-related incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mylett and Zhu will outline the steps to report crimes and incidents. Members of the public will also have the opportunity to ask questions and learn what to do if they are victimized or witness a bias incident or hate crime.
Questions and concerns can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The virtual town hall will be available on the city of Bellevue’s YouTube channel at youtube.com/bellevuetelevision or on BTV on cable channel 21.
The meeting will be in English and Mandarin and a translator will be available to translate questions sent in through the email.
While the Chinese community may be the group most impacted at the moment, Mylett said they want to effectively communicate to all communities the importance of reporting any incidents to the police.
“I want to hear from everybody,” he said, adding that they also recognize that there are people out there who are not able to differentiate between Asian ethnicities.
As someone who has spent more time than I should have explaining to others that I am not Chinese (or Filipino, in many cases), I greatly appreciated Mylett’s latter acknowledgement.
Because. We. Are. Not. All. The. Same.
When I spoke with other local law enforcement agencies, representatives from the Kirkland, Bothell, and Mercer Island police departments as well as the King County Sheriff’s Office told me they had not received any reports of racist or biased-based incidents against Asians or Asian Americans in their jurisdictions.
Although this may be a good thing on the surface, it could just mean people are not reporting.
Cmdr. Jeff Magnan with the Mercer Island Police Department (MIPD) said in addition to no reports on the Island, they have also not heard about any incidents anecdotally. And they can only go by what they are told, he said, adding that MIPD has reached out to the different Asian communities on the Island.
Like in Bellevue, Redmond Police Chief Darrell Lowe said Redmond has also seen an initial increase of applications for concealed pistol licenses but once City Hall closed to the public in the middle of March, that stopped as fingerprinting services were suspended.
He said there is this feeling or perception in the community of “unease” and the community is on edge and the Redmond Police Department (RPD) has received one report of an incident involving an Asian American individual. Lowe said racial intolerance of any type is unacceptable and his department has also been doing outreach to encourage people to report incidents. Reports are the only way law enforcement is able to capture what is going on as well as the only way people will be brought to justice, he said, noting that historically, hate crimes are under reported.
According to the Washington Office of Financial Management, there were more than 670,000 people of Asian descent in our state in 2019 (though this does not include people who are of two or more races or Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders). We were the largest minority racial group last year, with nine percent of Washington’s total population.
When I reached out to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office for comment about what has been happening, Mike Faulk, deputy communications director and press secretary for Inslee said, “the governor is aware of and abhors the racist and xenophobic behavior exhibited towards Asians and those of Asian descent that has been documented since this crisis began. He has addressed this repeatedly at news conferences, in press releases and on his social media pages. He has called for calm, compassion and understanding, and he has challenged other Washingtonians to call out this behavior when they see it.”
The Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC) — which is based in Seattle but also has locations in Bellevue, Redmond and Kent — has joined the course of many in rejecting any acts of discrimination and violence against Asians. Executive director Michael Itti said he is grateful to others such as law enforcement and elected officials who are also condemning these acts.
Itti said he and his staff have been doing what they can to encourage their clients to report incidents to the police. CISC staff had only learned about one incident among their clients. One of their clients was harassed while wearing a face mask on the 7 bus in Seattle.
These racist acts against Asians and Asian Americans are terrible but the COVID-19 outbreak has also prompted opposite reactions in some cases.
Sheena Chan, a server at Wah Luck Chinese Restaurant in Kirkland, said the community has been really kind to them, with customers telling them they want the restaurant to stay in the neighborhood and giving them business.
“We are really thankful,” she said about the support they have received, adding that like most places nowadays, they and the other restaurants in the business plaza where they are located have been slow.
At H Mart in Bellevue, things are slower but still busy. Won Jeon, who works in accounting and human resources for the Korean American supermarket, said “luckily,” they have not had any reports of racism from their employees or customers.
“Of course everyone is concerned at this time,” Jeon said about people worrying about getting sick.
She said although their customers may be nervous, they are nice, as usual.
Jeon acknowledged that people may be particularly nervous to visit Asian markets at this time and for their part, she said H Mart has taken extra precautions to protect customers and employees. These measures include hiring someone to wipe down and wash shopping carts, cashiers wearing gloves and changing those gloves frequently and adding hand sanitizing wipes throughout the store for customers.
Proving our humanity
Many Asian and Asian American celebrities and public figures have spoken out in response to these incidents.
Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang wrote an opinion piece on the topic for The Washington Post. In his piece, he wrote that “we Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before.” Yang wrote that actions such as helping our neighbors, donating gear, volunteering and wearing red, white and blue will show “without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”
His piece was not well received among Asian Americans nationwide as people called him out, saying we shouldn’t have to do anything to prove we are Americans. My parents fled a war-torn country, giving up everything to give me and my sister a better life here in the United States. I don’t know what could be more American than sacrifice, taking risks and working hard — it is the very definition of the American Dream.
Yang’s piece only refers to Asian Americans, how we need to demonstrate our American-ness in order to not be discriminated against. But what about Asian immigrants in this country who are not citizens? Or other Asians around the world? Does it mean it’s OK to discriminate against these individuals?
Discrimination and racism are all about dehumanizing another person or group of people. And no one — no matter their ethnicity, race, country of origin or citizenship status — should have to do anything to prove our humanity in order to be respected by our fellow human.
We shouldn’t be discriminated against simply because we are human beings.
In an effort to spread awareness about what is happening, a social media campaign has been started called #WashTheHate featuring people washing their hands and calling out acts of racism and xenophobia. The campaign has prompted Asian and Asian American celebrities as well as “civilians” to participate. And people aren’t just calling out racism, they are sharing their own experiences — yes, even celebrities like Tzi Ma (from “Rush Hour” and the new, live-action “Mulan”) have been targets.
“Acts of violence against Asian Americans will not stop the spread of this virus,” Ma said in his Instagram video. “So, the next time you wash your hands, wash out the hate that you have for your fellow Americans. Hate will get you sick. Even if the virus doesn’t.”
The campaign goal is to spread awareness of the issues as well as stop the spread of racism and the virus.
You know what else can help stop the spread of the illness besides washing your hands?
Wearing a face mask.
Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at email@example.com.