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Racism Is a Hidden but Real Part of COVID-19

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000695552.13665.00
    racism, COVID-19

    Emergency physicianLeana Wen, MD, told Anderson Cooper on CNN in late June that she had experienced a new kind of racism since the pandemic started, with some people calling her a bat eater and worse. Though she was reluctant to discuss this xenophobia for fear of appearing to dilute the Black Lives Matter movement, she agreed that it was important to talk about all forms of racism, particularly in light of the language being used by the White House and other political leaders.

    Dr. Wen, also a public health professor at George Washington University and previously the Health Commissioner for the City of Baltimore, told EMN'sLola Butcherthat she hopes this will be part of a reckoning that can make all of us more mindful of the injustices and racism in society.

    EMN: Will you tell us about the racism that you have experienced since the start of the pandemic?

    Dr. Wen: I noticed that when I was going grocery shopping—I live in an area that does not have a lot of Asian Americans—people would start avoiding me and would gravitate to another area. Then I started becoming more active doing commentary around COVID-19, appearing on various cable news shows and NPR, writing about COVID-19, and specifically about the trends that we're seeing, the steps that policymakers should be taking, and how individuals can also be reducing their own risk.

    Every time I would write a paper or be on air, I would receive some comments over social media, by email, even sometimes to my office phone, to the effect of, “You are a bat eater,” or “You should go back to your own country,” or “You are the cause of this virus. Why can't you admit that you and your people are the cause of this virus?”

    All of this was brought up through the CNN interview, in the context of the comments that have been made by President Trump and others who call COVID-19 by a name other than what it is, by referring to it as the China virus, the Wuhan virus, or things that are even more inappropriate.

    The point that I was trying to make was: Look, for us, for me as a physician, for my colleagues, we're just trying to do our best. We're trying to take care of our patients. [But] we internalize this, and often don't talk about it.

    I had not talked about this at all really to anyone until the show, but I also think it needs to be brought up because it doesn't have to be this way. We as a society shouldn't tolerate this level of racism and antagonism. It's something that hurts public health. It detracts from our ability to provide good medical care, and we all have the ability and the responsibility to speak with language that's not stigmatizing.

    EMN: Is this kind of racism that you and your Asian American colleagues have experienced just since the pandemic began or is this an exacerbation of discrimination or racism that you have seen professionally previously?

    Dr. Wen: I haven't been able to talk about this because right now is the time for the Black Lives Matter movement, and I do not in any way want to take away the much needed and overdue attention from that.

    I've heard my Black physician friends' and nurses' stories too about the discrimination that they have faced. I live and work in Baltimore, a city that is 62 percent African American, and have seen the injustices that Black Americans face, and I don't in any way want this to be a “What about-ism?” or “Oh, we shouldn't just be talking about Black lives, we should be talking about Asian lives.” This is about the reckoning that all of us need to be doing to be even more aware of the injustices and racism and systemic racism that are in our society.

    To directly answer your question, of course, there is underlying discrimination already. These comments since the beginning of this virus perpetuated, unfortunately by public officials, have only made it worse.

    EMN: What is it that you think has emboldened people, including patients, to act out in such an aggressive and threatening way?

    Dr. Wen: At the root of all of this is fear. A comedian here in Baltimore said to me, “It's hurt people who hurt people.” What is happening in our country is deep fear and distrust and uncertainty about what comes, and we do see that in these times of fear that people look for scapegoats.

    This is the reason, when public officials and others make comments about this virus coming from a certain part of the world, it gets tied to certain people who suddenly become the enemy, and that's become very dangerous. We have seen in other countries and in this one physical attack, people being stabbed because they're Asian, because they're being accused of carrying the virus. We need to consider the impact of labeling in this way because it really does promote that fear and stigma. It perpetuates racism and xenophobia in our country.

    EMN: If you could speak to President Trump, what would you say about his use of the term kung flu and other racist language and comments he has made?

    Dr. Wen: I would say, “Look, President Trump, you serve America, and I am an American, and you are hurting us [with] this language. There is a reason public health experts have named this disease in a neutral way, to not perpetuate racism and xenophobia. As the president, I hope you will focus your attention on strategies that help us move forward and save lives from this pandemic.”

    EMN: What advice would you give to other Asian American health care professionals who are experiencing this type of overt racism?

    Dr. Wen: I think part of it is recognizing that we are all in this together. It's, again, not only Asian Americans who face this kind of discrimination, certainly African Americans, Hispanic Americans, people who may look or sound different from what somebody might expect, and LGBTQ people. There are all kinds of individuals, I think, who may face some level of discrimination and microaggressions while doing their job of caring for patients.

    Part of it is recognizing that even though our specific experiences and the reasons behind these prejudiced comments may be different that we are going through this together and we can be part of the solution together. Number two is opening the door and having these conversations and showing compassion and asking what more it is that we can offer one another at this time.

    The other thing too is, what can each of us do in our individual lives? All of us, if we're speaking about COVID-19, can talk about how this is a global pandemic. This is not about one group of people, this is not about a group that brought it to others. All of us are susceptible to getting this infection, and we should all be using public health, science-focused language when talking about this illness.

    EMN: Many people are unaware that Asian American health care professionals would ever be called bat eaters or anything like that.

    Dr. Wen: I don't mean to speak on behalf of Asian Americans, but I would say that the Asian American physicians and nurses I know [and have] talked to have not wanted to raise these issues, and have internalized them because we don't want to complain. Frankly, this has happened in other ways before, in different ways.

    I think we also haven't wanted to talk about it in part because of the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement right now and not wanting to overshadow that and the critical urgency of that movement. We believe that our job is to serve our patients, no matter what.

    I also think it's important for these stories to be shared because they move us to action. I hope sharing [my] story will allow others to share their stories as a way to educate and for all of us to do better together.

    This interview was edited and condensed. Read an unabridged version on our website:

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    Ms. Butchercovers health care policy and business of health care issues, trends, and controversies for publications read by physicians, health system leaders, and the public. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Follow her on Twitter@lolabutcher.

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