Op-Ed: Panic over the coronavirus recalls other racist chapters in California’s history

Shoppers wearing masks
Shoppers in San Gabriel, Calif., wear masks as a precaution against the coronavirus.
(Los Angeles Times)

The images out of Wuhan are chilling. In the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, health officials in white hazmat suits hover over the body of a victim. Crowds of ordinary people, their faces obscured by surgical masks, try to carry on as normal.

As the United States, Australia, Russia, Japan and many other countries announce travel restrictions to and from China, it was only a matter of time before paranoia about coronavirus and Asians would spread as well.

On Jan. 30, Los Angeles officials warned that a fake letter circulating on Facebook and email falsely claimed that five people in Carson, a city south of downtown Los Angeles, had contracted coronavirus and named five local businesses in an Asian neighborhood as being connected to the outbreak.


The hoax letter is just one instance of fear-mongering directed at Asian communities that is playing out on social media. An Instagram post by UC Berkeley’s health services offered reassurance that anti-Asian xenophobia was a “common” and “normal” reaction to concerns about contracting coronavirus (it was deleted after alumni and students voiced outrage). Meanwhile, students across California have reported feeling that fear of the virus made them targets for anti-Asian comments and open hostility.

Racial profiling for coronavirus isn’t confined to California or the United States. Asians in Europe — including Chinese but also Vietnamese and Cambodians — have reported coronavirus-inspired acts of harassment in schools and playgrounds as well as on public transportation. Chinese shop owners in Italy and France have noted a decline in their business as fearful customers keep their distance.

The Italian coast guard quarantined 7,000 passengers and crew aboard a cruise ship off the coast near Rome when a traveler from Hong Kong developed flu-like symptoms. It was, indeed, nothing but the flu, but locals at the port staged a protest demanding the testing of all 750 Chinese on the ship. Rising incidents of anti-Asian abuse have been reported in Australia and Canada as well.

In the United States, racially charged panic over the virus echoes a long history of anti-Asian racism that identified Asian Americans and their businesses and neighborhoods as vectors for epidemic disease. Beginning in the 1870s, as immigration from China to the United States surged, public health officials often wrongly linked American Chinatowns to outbreaks of leprosy, smallpox, bubonic plague and tuberculosis. In San Francisco, the Department of Public Health had a practice of conducting medical investigations that quarantined Chinatown and restricted its inhabitants’ freedoms. Yet, the Chinese had no higher rates of mortality than any other working-class community in San Francisco.

Motivated by fear and racism, authorities sometimes simultaneously quarantined Asian American neighborhoods and denied them essential medical services. For example, the Chinese were shut out of San Francisco’s public hospitals during a citywide outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900. In response, they organized their own private hospital, staffed by a combination of Western-trained medical scientists and traditional Chinese herbalists. In 1918, as the global influenza pandemic crested, Japanese immigrants were similarly excluded from mainstream medical care in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Medical scapegoating and discriminatory policing of Asian-owned businesses and homes were routine in the 19th century. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for these attitudes to be reawakened, particularly during health crises. In the 1980s, for instance, Los Angeles County health inspectors targeted Chinese restaurants displaying roasted Peking ducks in their windows. The inspectors claimed, without evidence, that the ducks harbored salmonella and other bacteria.


As epidemiologists look to the future, they anticipate that many global epidemics will emanate from less developed parts of the world, including Asia. Successful containment will depend on broad, public support for scientists and health officials, working to disseminate accurate information about how viruses spread.

Effectively fighting contagions will also require fighting fears driven by racist impulses. The quarantines of Chinatowns in the 19th century didn’t suppress disease or improve public health but did legitimize discrimination against entire populations.

Today, as state agencies and school authorities issue warnings and reassurances, they should be sensitive to this historical pattern. What’s needed is evidenced-based, easily understood information that defuses public anxieties without provoking race-based panic and deepening inequalities.

Tamara Venit-Shelton is an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of “Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace.