Prejudice Toward Asian Health Care Workers

By: Anjelica Shrestha


On February 11th, 2020, the WHO declared the novel coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic. Within the first 2 weeks of this declaration, more than 1,000 cases of racial discrimination and harassment against Asian Americans had been reported. 

Racial discrimination occurs when an individual is treated unfairly due to their race; this injustice has been linked to worse mental health outcomes, including increased risk of general distress, depression, and anxiety. In an online survey of Asian medical students in Poland, approximately 60% of the surveyed students reported having experienced some form of prejudice in Poland related to the COVID-19 pandemic [2]. The reports included, but are not limited to, offenders stepping away from students, changing seats on the bus, using offensive language, and asking students to keep a distance. Some students were even asked to leave restaurants due to the complaints of other customers. Various forms of discrimination were also experienced in health service units, where Asian medical students were met with terrified reactions from their patients, who had concerns that the students may be carrying the virus. Certain students were asked to remove their face masks entirely when visiting patients, in an attempt to avoid these unnecessary tensions. 

Similar attitudes are seen in the United States as well. Lucy Li, a Chinese anesthesiology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been subject to profanity-laced racist comments such as, “Why are you Chinese people killing everyone?” on her way to the subway [3].

Li expresses her sadness and anger, given the irony that she risks her own personal health in order to help save lives, only to be vilified simply because of her background. In addition, there have been cases of COVID-19 patients who have refused to be treated by Asian healthcare professionals. When Lim, an Indonesian nurse practitioner, approached an ER patient to show them how to put on a mask, the patient yelled and coughed in his face. “You know where the coronavirus is from? It’s from you people! I don’t want to be seen by you,” Lim recalled being told, as the patient walked out of the ER [3].

Misdirected paranoia and many individuals’ one’s own biases have led to increased feelings of fear and apprehension in the general population. Although the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Wuhan, China, it is unreasonable and racist to generalize all people of Asian descent with being positive for COVID-19. 

Insensitive remarks from the president of the United States such as labelling COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” and “Kung-Flu” have deliberately attached an ethnicity to the virus, convincing many to make a close association between the virus and Chinese people, contributing to the racial discrimination [2,3]. We’ve seen incidences of nation-spread racism in the past when xenophobic policies following the 9/11 terrorist attack led to violence against targeted communities that still persists to this day. If the stigma towards Asians is amplified via generalizations and misleading media coverage, it can further divide and increase hostility within the nation. 

While negative media portrayals fuel the stigma, positive mass media campaigns can help break stereotypes. For example, the First Lady of New York released a video, standing in solidarity with Asian-Americans by sharing their roles on the frontlines, on Twitter. National leadership must address and speak out against anti-Asian stigma in a similar fashion. At the same time, it is important that we all continue to educate ourselves and actively challenge stereotypes. 

The unsettling part about experiencing covert racism and microaggression is that you never feel entirely sure if you are being treated unfairly because of something you did as an individual, or if you happen to be a victim of something immutable and larger than yourself. Regardless, treating someone in a discriminatory manner is wrong. Forming biases and prejudices based on stereotypes or one’s own personal schemas is wrong – wrong and dangerous. Especially during these challenging months, it is important to have faith in our allied healthcare professionals, so as to unite against and eradicate the infection together.

References

[1] Misra S, Le P.D, Goldmann E, Yang L. Psychological Impact of Anti-Asian Stigma Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Call for Research, Practice, and Policy Responses. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy. Advanced online publication. 2020. Available from: doi: 10.1037/tra0000821. 

[2] Jan T. Asian American doctors and nurses are fighting racism and the coronavirus. The Washington Post, 2020. 

[3] Rzymski P, Nowicki M. COVID-19-related prejudice toward Asian medical students: A consequence of SARS-CoV-2 fears in Poland. Journal of Infection and Public Health. 2020; 13 (6): 873-876. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jiph.2020.04.013.

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