Stereotypes blamed for unfounded coronavirus fears

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LOS ANGELES — County officials are urging the public to resist yielding to anti-Asian stereotypes, panic and misinformation related to unfounded fears that the coronavirus may be spreading in the Southland.

At a news conference in downtown Los Angeles Feb. 13, community leaders emphasized that the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and winter flu remains a more immediate threat.

However, the common sight along city streets of people wearing white medical masks is fueling a “racist backlash related to hysteria and misinformation” about the virus, according to the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council, a coalition of community-based organizations that advocates for the rights and needs of the Asian and Pacific Islander American community in Los Angeles.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis suggested that fears of transmission of the coronavirus has sparked vitriolic comments in public and suspicion of Asians, particularly those wearing face masks.

“I’m very disappointed that people are buying into the stereotypes,” she told reporters, adding that “we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of wearing a mask.”

Solis urged anyone who experiences verbal or physical harassment to report it.

“I want to assure the public that our medical experts have been working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct health screenings at LAX, which is our first line of defense against the virus,” the supervisor said. “In the meantime, we must not circulate misinformation or scapegoat groups of people.”

Recently, a young person was bullied at his middle school, beaten up and accused of having the coronavirus simply because he was Asian American, said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian coalition. She added that there have been numerous incidents reported on social media of people being harassed, as well as rumors being spread.

“It is unfortunate that misinformation about the coronavirus is causing fear in some of our school communities,” said Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo. “It is our duty as educators to maintain children’s routines and sense of normalcy, so we don’t contribute to their anxieties. Our schools must remain safe and welcoming environments for all our young people.”

The coronavirus epidemic has claimed more than 1,000 lives in China, exceeding the death toll of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak of 2003. More than 40,000 infections have been documented in China, with a few hundred in other countries, according to the World Health Organization. The respiratory illness is treatable, and patients are recovering, health officials said.

There have been 13 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, with seven of those in California, including one case each in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. Temporary quarantine and processing sites have been established at major airports, including LAX.

“Discrimination targeting our Asian American and Chinese American friends, neighbors and businesses is harmful to our entire community,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “This is not the time for the perpetuation of stereotypes and misinformation about novel coronavirus. Public Health encourages everyone to continue to enjoy all that our Asian communities have to offer.”

The virus was first identified publicly by the Chinese government on Dec. 31, when authorities indicated an unknown pneumonia variant was impacting residents of Hubei province. Since then, the 2019-nCoV has spread to several dozen countries, according to the World Health organization, which has officially dubbed the disease COVID-19.

Los Angeles County public health nurses are closely monitoring all residents who recently traveled to mainland China, regardless of whether they have any symptoms of the coronavirus.

More than 1,000 people fall into that category and each has been assigned a public health nurse and asked to self-isolate and not to go to work or school for 14 days, Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors Feb. 11.

“This is an aggressive effort to touch all the people who’ve come into L.A. County,” Ferrer said.

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