It started as the “Chinese virus.” Then the “kung flu.” Then came the boycotts of Chinatowns, the rise in harassment, assaults, and murders. The recognition of hate and discrimination against Asian Americans was long overdue. However, anti-Asian racism doesn’t just manifest in hate speech or violence; it has undermined the U.S. COVID-19 policy response.
In 2020, American media narratives frequently painted Asian nations’ success in controlling COVID-19 as the result of submissive culture, authoritarian governance, or both. Across the political spectrum, leaders parroted this framing, and invoked Americans’ independence as the rationale for why our government cannot do more: public health policies are the enemy of freedom.
American debates on face masks demonstrate the harms of Asian stereotypes. Many attribute widespread mask use in Asia to collectivist cultures that suppress individualism. Initial skepticism on the evidence base transformed into the perception masking as a matter of personal choice, i.e., maintaining liberty. Two years later, the discussions to end mask mandates conveniently fail to mention the experience in Asia at all. Those who called for the end of face masks in schools proclaimed that masks socially and emotionally wound children- the unspoken implication that in Asian countries, parents choose to abuse their children.
The “culture” story obscures that reality in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, governments recognize that planning and policy matter. Following SARS-COV-1, they invested heavily in public health infrastructure and preparedness. In February of 2020, Taiwan mass-produced masks and implemented a plan to distribute them through pharmacies, community centers, and the postal service. South Korea rapidly expanded testing to achieve high population coverage. Both used intensive contact tracing, leveraged health information technology, developed new applications, and communicated the importance of layered interventions. In other words, the American conversation leaned on racist stereotypes about Asian culture, rather than point out a government response that used the best tools available for prevention.
Western media continues to feed anti-Asian racism by only reporting on China’s extreme COVID policies, with racist language about its “army of millions … willing to work diligently towards the government’s goal.” While sidelining stories on the Asian nations mentioned here (much less Vietnam or Singapore), the narrow focus on China reinforces the underlying message that Asian public health measures violate sacrosanct American freedoms. Recent coverage on the Omicron surge in Hong Kong harped on the failures of a strict zero-COVID approach rather than offering more informed analyses of the island’s political dynamics, including lack of trust in government, that drive low vaccination rates.
Meanwhile, people in other nations enjoy more liberties than Americans do. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan currently score higher than the U.S. on the global democracy Index. We are unable to acknowledge that these Asian nations–inspired by the American civil rights movement–have surpassed us. The U.S. COVID-19 mortality rate is 82 times higher than Taiwan’s. Even South Korea, during its Omicron COVID-19 surge, has had a far lower death rate due to its greater success in vaccination. By implementing policies to protect their people, they have demonstrated the strength and health of their democracies.
A virologist who detailed Japan’s COVID-19 approach noted that the reasons for differing national responses require a “much deeper analysis.” In The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee posed the question, “Why can’t we have nice things?” and landed on the many ways in which desperation to maintain white supremacy trumped policies that would improve the lives of all, including white Americans.
Many Americans are also wondering why can’t we have effective pandemic management policies and why are we shedding the few protections we have? Our history of racism, mixed with xenophobia, has already shown why. Structural racism ensures that the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacts low-income people of color both at home and abroad. Xenophobia ensures that we continue to blame others rather than take responsibility for our caring for our own. Our community, including our local experts in medicine and public health, needs to recognize that internalized anti-Asian racism manifests in violent action and the violence of neglect.
By dismissing the policy successes of multiple Asian governments as unimaginable due to “cultural differences” or by failing to acknowledge them at all, American leadership reinforces the belief that only white-centered Western approaches have legitimacy. Those approaches have propelled the United States to lead the world in COVID-19 spread, deaths, and unaccounted mass disability. Public health is not the enemy of freedom. Racism is.
Michelle Ko is a physician and public health professor.
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