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Community Voices: Fear and Racism during Covid-19

Elizabeth Gelman

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Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned to me that some people, worried about catching the coronavirus, had stopped eating in Chinese restaurants. I laughed and waited for the punchline. There was none. Apparently, there were Americans who actually thought they might catch the virus simply by eating Chinese food. And not just Chinese restaurants, it later came to light, but all Asian restaurants were reporting a drop in business. And then I began hearing stories of Asians being assaulted on the street, being spit upon, assaulted and screamed at.

Logically, people should understand that being of Asian descent has nothing to do with who is a carrier of the coronavirus. This is the 21st century. We all know what germs are and how disease spreads. 

But in times of uncertainty, rational thought seems to be one of the first things to disappear. Just last fall, the research journal Plos One published a series of studies that demonstrated that cultures grow more prejudiced in response to destabilizing events like famine, war or disease. Fear trumps logic. 

A hundred years ago, an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco was traced to infected rats on a ship from Hong Kong, resulting in a quarantine of all Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the city but no quarantine for European Americans who had been in contact with the ship. In 1892, Russian Jewish immigrants were targeted when outbreaks of typhus fever and cholera in New York City were traced to immigrants from Eastern Europe. In 1993, an outbreak of a virus in the southwest United States was initially called the “Navajo Flu,” leading to severe fear and discrimination of Native Americans in the region. And during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014, prejudice and hate crimes against all African immigrants rose. 

During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, homophobia rose to new heights. Those who contracted the disease – whether homosexual or heterosexual – were treated as pariahs in their communities. Fear ran rampant. A 1985 Time magazine article, “The New Untouchables,” reported that when parents at PS 63 in Queens NY heard that an unidentified 2nd-grader at one of the 644 public New York schools had been diagnosed with AIDS, 86% of the children were kept home from school.  

It wasn’t until national media picked up the story of Ryan White, a child who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and was subsequently forced out of his community, that perceptions started to change. People felt a personal connection to Ryan, and through that connection were able to gain more knowledge about disease, and the stigma of AIDS began to lessen for everyone who had contracted the disease. 

Our teaching philosophy at The Florida Holocaust Museum is to connect one person to one person, emphasizing the similarities rather than focusing on the differences. How people react when confronted with complex situations is often predicated on how they categorize the world around them. Human beings tend to fear what they do not know; they tend to fear “the other.” The Holocaust provides a clear and detailed illustration of what can happen when fear overwhelms fact, when prejudice and discrimination are allowed to grow unchecked. 

So how best to combat this sense of “other” in our communities when so many of us are huddled inside our homes, our fears about the coronavirus rising every time we check the news on our phones and computers? You can start by scheduling a virtual visit to a museum or art or history site that’s outside your customary interests like the Chinese Historical Society of America,  the Japanese American Legacy Project, The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture , The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia and The National Museum of Mexican Art. Or add a few new organizations to your Facebook feed like Seminole Museum, Asian Art Museum or the Chinese American Museum of Chicago.

And, of course, you can take a virtual tour of The Florida Holocaust Museum’s permanent exhibition at TheFHM.org, download our educational curriculum or participate in our “drop in” Facebook events at 1 p.m. Tuesdays -Thursdays to interact with Holocaust Survivors, curators and educators. We teach about the Holocaust so people can push past fear to see beyond race, creed, color and ideology, and connect as one individual to another. It is imperative that we educate ourselves and our children so we can speak out against bigotry and discrimination instead of falling prey to it during times of fear.

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