By Shira Goodman and Jeremy Bannett
As we face the global pandemic of COVID-19, it is all too clear that we are fighting two viruses.
While our society struggles to respond to the coronavirus, we are also failing to contain an outbreak of hate.
Unfortunately, the two viruses appear inexorably linked – as coronavirus fears rise, our leaders and communities are displaying increasingly severe symptoms of bigotry. And like with the biological disease, the social disease threatens to spiral out of control if we do not act quickly.
COVID-19 is not a “foreign virus;” it is a human virus.
It is scientific fact that coronavirus does not discriminate based on ethnic background or race. Virtually anyone can contract and contribute to the spread of this disease.
This became undeniably obvious in recent days, when it was revealed that Americans of all backgrounds have tested positive for the virus, including an NBA player and a Hollywood star, not to mention more than one thousand individuals in 43 states.
But fact does not spread as quickly as fear, and ignorance, confusion and mistrust are running rampant. These are the key ingredients fueling an extremely contagious and dangerous outbreak of hate.
The first symptom of viral bigotry is an almost pathological need to find someone to blame. This urge is not new. In the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of causing the Bubonic Plague. In the early 19th century, Irish immigrants were blamed for cholera. The LGBT community was vilified during the AIDS epidemic. In each case, the accused community experienced marginalization, oppression and even violence.
Now with COVID-19, Asian Americans have become the scapegoat. Even in the earliest days of the outbreak, our Asian American friends and neighbors started to experience bigotry and discrimination.
We’ve heard troubling reports of anti-Asian American bias across the country and here in Philadelphia, ranging from social avoidance to racist bullying in schools to violent assaults against Asian Americans. As we have seen throughout history, when a group of people is blamed for illness, that community is at serious risk.
Unfortunately, the very people who can slow the tide of viral hate are opening the floodgates. Elected and appointed officials, including the secretary of state and the president, are deliberately referring to coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” “the Wuhan virus” and “the foreign virus.”
This language is irresponsible and dangerous and threatens to instigate a spike in hate-fueled incidents targeting Asian Americans.
Scientists and medical professionals have pointed out where our response to the biological virus must go, and experts on hate and bigotry must follow their lead in order to slow the spread of hate.
Just as facts and data will equip us to fight the biological virus, facts and data must be used to combat misinformation, scapegoating and bigotry. Both fights require leadership from the top, allies at all levels and a commitment to the health and well-being of all of us.
We must ensure that our friends, neighbors, colleagues practice good anti-bias hygiene by learning the facts about this virus and constantly challenging their own biases. We must quarantine racist rhetoric and ideology. We must inoculate the public against hate through education. We must provide support and solace to victims of hate by acting as allies to targeted communities.
While there is much uncertainty about what the next few weeks and months will bring, and while it is clear that there will continue to be unprecedented changes in our daily lives, there can be no doubt that right now we have a critical choice to make. We can either win the fight against COVID-19 and viral hate by choosing knowledge over ignorance, courage over fear, and unity over division, or we can suffer untold pain and loss as we are ravaged by two simultaneous pandemics.
The wrong choice will have lasting consequences and could impact not only our response to the biological virus but also the shape of our society when the immediate threat passes.
Ultimately, things will get back to normal – schools will resume, the NBA will play again, we will crowd movie theaters to see the latest James Bond film, and in-person meetings will replace conference calls But if we choose the wrong path – if we do not condemn misinformation, scapegoating, bigotry and hatred now – the most we can hope for is that viral hate will go dormant, and we will always be waiting for the next outbreak.
Shira Goodman and Jeremy Bannett are the Regional Director and the Senior Associate Regional Director, respectively, of ADL Philadelphia.