Anxious, Shocked, Terrified: Asians Face Increased Discrimination During Pandemic

Pedestrians wear face masks in Chinatown on March 16th.
Dashed Arrow
Pedestrians wear face masks in Chinatown on March 16th. John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

In early April, Jason Wu was walking in East Harlem with his partner when a woman with a mask on turned towards them, pulled down her mask, and said with disgust that the coronavirus came from China. Then, she spat at them, according to Wu, who works as a public defender and is the political chair of GAPIMNY, an organization advocating for queer and trans Asians in New York City.

"We were in shock so we didn't know how to react," Wu told Gothamist. "We were not expecting anyone to do that. I had heard that there were increased incidents of violence and harassment, but we really just in that moment were not expecting that to happen. We were just shocked."

Wu is among a growing number of East Asians experiencing racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NYPD has seen hate crimes against Asians rise by more than six-and-a-half times, from 3 reports in 2019 to 20 through May 18th. Seventeen of those were hate crimes related to the coronavirus. Healthcare workers on the frontlines of fighting coronavirus are now dealing with heightened racism. Earlier this month, a man dragged an Asian subway rider, reportedly a nurse, from a train car and threatened to beat him up. In a separate incident, a woman was attacked on a bus in the Bronx by a group of teenagers.

The NYC Commission on Human Rights has received 133 anti-Asian discrimination reports related to the coronavirus—more than one-third of all reports—from February 1st to May 15th, up from 11 last year over the same time period.

Jo-Ann Yoo, the executive director of the Asian American Federation, said it doesn't help that President Donald Trump has conflated the virus with China—calling it the "Chinese virus." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to COVID-19 as the "Wuhan virus" six times at a press briefing in March, referring to the first epicenter of the outbreak, according to the Times. But research suggests the virus spread to NYC from Europe, and Trump's European travel ban ultimately spurred panic and chaos and virus breeding grounds at airports in mid-March as travelers rushed home.

“It’s really disheartening. I think it’s emboldened a lot of racists to come out and attack people," Yoo said.

"We've seen this happen before in other parts of our community. After 9/11, the South Asian/Arab/Muslim community. They were targeted. People were getting beat up," Yoo said. She wants law enforcement to act more quickly. "We've seen all of this happen and knowing what had happened, and we all say, you know, 'Oh my God, this is such a shameful thing.'"

Yoo added that not everyone reports incidents for fear, embarrassment, or lack of capacity to file a report through 311 by phone or online, especially for seniors.

On Tuesday, the city's human rights commission launched a $100,000 ad campaign in ethnic media sources reminding New Yorkers of their rights and encouraging people to report incidents of discrimination related to the coronavirus. It also created a response team to address COVID-19 bias.

“We want to be reaching out to the most vulnerable communities where they are and where they’re getting their resources and information,” the chair of the commission, Carmelyn Malalis, told Gothamist. Ads will be placed in media sources like Korea Central Daily News, WZRC-AM1480, El Diario and Amsterdam News. The adds will also be placed on WeChat, a commonly used messaging and social media app in Chinese and Korean communities.

“The sheer numbers are making people take notice that, yes, this actually does exist and this is how it’s taken form,” Malalis said of discrimination against Asians. “Unfortunately, in this time of COVID-19, it is actually being exacerbated. It’s increased because of some of the dangerous rhetoric around this illness.”

The commission has also hosted 16 events reaching 5,000 New Yorkers to educate people about the human rights laws, underreporting, and bystander trainings.

Example of an ad to combat human rights violations related to COVID-19.
Dashed Arrow
Example of an ad to combat human rights violations related to COVID-19. NYC Commission on Human Rights

Yoo said, "I appreciate the city doing what they can at this point."

“I wish it came much earlier—but now that we're going out of a pandemic, and people are slowly reemerging from their homes, hopefully this is a really good start to engaging the public about hate crimes and about bias incidents,” she said.

Though advocates and city officials are encouraging Asians to report hate crimes and discrimination, such statistics are an incomplete picture of what Asians are experiencing.

Creative arts therapist Mika Lee started carrying pepper spray and wearing her hospital ID badge on the train from her home in Astoria to a Bronx hospital, where she works.

"I think that's something that I have in my mind—that maybe that will be helpful for people to have basic respect for a healthcare worker," said Lee, who's Taiwanese.

During the pandemic, people move away from her on the train, and she's experienced a fellow subway rider look at her face in shock, audibly expressing disdain towards her. Before Governor Andrew Cuomo mandated wearing face coverings in public spaces, she said wearing a mask made her feel more unsafe.

"It's really two ways. You wear it, it's your physical safety that will be threatened. If you don't wear it, it's [the virus] that is waiting for you," Lee said.

East Village resident Megumi Kikuraku echoed Lee's experience.

Kikuraku, who’s from Japan, is accustomed to wearing masks in public and wanted to wear one earlier on during NYC's outbreak.

“I was really terrified. I might be a target if I wear a mask,” Kikuraku, a freelance translator, recalled of the period before Cuomo mandated face coverings on April 15th. “I really wanted to wear a mask to protect me from coronavirus, but I don’t want to be a target so I try not to wear a mask.” In April, an adult woman pulled down her mask to make a face at her while walking on the sidewalk in Greenwich Village—what Kikuraku could only assume to be because she was Asian. She feels nervous when people unexpectedly approach her on the street.

Once people return to work, Yoo is concerned more incidents will happen as people begin commuting and leaving their homes more often.

“We’ve all been home. We’re anxious to come out. We’re frustrated. We’re exhausted. We’re coming out to unemployment. We’re coming out to just this economic devastation," Yoo said. "That’s the world we’re emerging into and what does that look like? These are the fears that I have."

Featured in News