President Trump again referred to COVID-19 as the “Kung flu” in Arizona on Tuesday night.
The president’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended his use of the term, saying he was simply characterizing the virus’s origin. But others, including those working in health care, say these racial slurs are impacting the Asian American community.
At the same time, the U.S. is grappling with protests against systemic racism in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. Without taking away from the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, we need to talk about racist and xenophobic attacks directed at Asian Americans, says Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency doctor at George Washington University and former Baltimore Health Commissioner.
“We who are Asian American join in and support Black-led movements to talk about dismantling systemic racism and the legacy of anti-Blackness in this country,” she says. “So this is not a conversation about comparing injustices, but I hope we all see it as a reckoning for what happens in this country, that we all have to be part of the solution to stop all forms of racism, xenophobia and hate.”
When Trump uses the terms “Chinese virus” or “Kung flu,” his supporters applaud him. This reminds Wen of the negative experiences she and her Asian American colleagues endure.
Any time Wen appears on-air or in an article to talk about reducing the risk of getting the coronavirus, people send her racist, xenophobic messages.
“I will get messages calling me a bat-eater, saying that I have no right to talk about this topic because it’s, quote, ‘my people’ who brought it to the country,” she says. “Even people writing to me saying, ‘You’re the reason why people are dying. You should go back to your country and take the virus with you.’ ”
Wen also hears stories from nurses and doctors on the frontlines. Some say patients refused to see them based on their race, she says, while other colleagues report people yelling at them on the street after work — despite that “they are risking their lives to save others.”
One of her colleagues even told her about patients spitting on Asian American health care workers, she says.
A lot of her colleagues internalize these experiences and feel they should not complain, she says. But Wen thinks talking about the issue can enact change.
“Our president and other public officials need to be leading the way to talk about the racism and injustice in our country, but also to correct the record,” she says. “And unfortunately, it seems like our president is going in exactly the opposite direction.”
On top of the negative incidents doctors and nurses experience, Wen also worries about how prejudice could impact patients’ care.
Patients not trusting advice from a doctor who looks Asian American causes “a big problem for that person’s health care,” she says. And Asian American patients may feel wary about seeking necessary care in fear of being mistreated.
Plus, this rhetoric is part of the “politicization of public health,” which concerns Wen.
The World Health Organization has a committee dedicated to naming new diseases because naming them after a type of people, country or region creates stigma and can provoke acts of racism, she says. This has happened before with the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918, for example, and now it’s occurring in the U.S. and around the world with COVID-19.
Many people believe a debunked conspiracy theory that China created the coronavirus in a lab. Linking the virus exclusively to China also impacted the way the U.S. dealt with COVID-19 early on, she says.
Trump’s travel ban on China missed a number of travelers from different parts of the world who carried the virus to the U.S., she says.
“It’s now understood that in the New York region, the initial spikes are not because of travelers from China, but from Europe,” she says.
The trend of COVID-19 cases spiking in several states across the U.S. is “deeply concerning,” she says. Intensive care units in places such as Arizona have reached 88% capacity, similar to the trends seen in New York back in March.
Record high hospitalizations in seven states demonstrate the lag time of the virus, she says. In parts of the country that reopened weeks ago, many young people were going to pool parties and crowded bars without masks.
Now, in places like Texas, hospitals are reporting a significant number of young people being admitted. But states such as New York and Minnesota, where thousands have been protesting for a month since the killing of George Floyd, have not seen the same trends.
That’s in-part because protests take place outdoors and many protesters take precautions including wearing masks, Wen says. Being outdoors versus indoors reduces the rate of transmission as much as 18 to 19 times, she says.
Spikes related to the protests could still occur due to the lag time, she says. It can take infected people up to 14 days to develop symptoms and even longer for someone to become severely ill.
“But so far, what we’re seeing from the initial results of testing of those who attended protests is that a relatively small percentage are testing positive,” she says.
As this contagious disease continues to spread rapidly around the country, Wen says particular spots could become new epicenters of the outbreak. To prevent this grim outcome, policymakers need to ramp up testing, tracing and isolation, as well as pause reopening and require masks in public, she says.
People living in areas that aren’t seeing surges in cases or hospitalizations also need to keep social distancing and wearing masks, she says. Community transmission is likely happening right now, she says, so individual actions impact everyone.
“It’s not too late to turn this around. We all have to do our part,” she says. “For all of us, recognize that just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.