Coronavirus fuels racial discrimination across the country

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- As the number of Coronavirus cases continues to rise, racial discrimination comes along with it, specifically targeting Chinese people. It is a concern NBC15 News has reported on all week.

In a press conference on Friday, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Health Officer Jeanne Ayers said, “I want to emphasize that ethnic background has no influence on the risk of this virus, only travel history or direct contact with a case puts someone at risk.”

Earlier in the week, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway addressed the discrimination saying, “You cannot tell if someone has a risk of spreading the novel Coronavirus by what they look like … This public health concern will not be solved with fear and discrimination.”

This is a national problem has been seen across all social media platforms, namely Tik Tok, Twitter and Instagram. Closer to home, several viewers commented derogatory things against Chinese people on NBC15's Facebook page.

Race and health experts tell NBC15 News, historically this is a problem that has not seen much progress.

“One of the problems with the way in which xenophobia tends to cling to these kinds of outbreaks, is that we tend really to focus on the wrong things,” says Richard Keller, Professor of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin.

The spread of Coronavirus is not the first time this problem has popped up in the United States. People of different ethnicities saw pushback following 2014’s Ebola outbreak and SARS in 2002.

Even before that, this type of discrimination dates back to the 1800’s in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“Chinese people were actually excluded from becoming American citizens. It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act, and it was the first of its kind in the country. And part of the reason for it was this idea of disease and health,” says Dr. Paige Glotzer, Assistant Professor John W. & Jeanne M. Rowe Chair in the History of American Politics, Institutions and Political Economy at the University of Wisconsin. “When Chinese people were finally able to be full citizens, there was an idea that perhaps they were somehow permanently foreign, meaning that maybe disease or health permanently or inevitably worked different for them.”

Dr. Glotzer explains that most often such negative comments do not have any merit.

“Sometimes it doesn't make sense for the person to have anywhere near where the source of disease might have been. But solely on the basis of them looking Chinese to someone else, they could be Korean. But it's that idea for the perception of others,” she tells NBC15 News.

Experts say the discrimination likely stems from panic and misunderstanding of different cultures.

“It seems as if the diseases that we perceive as exotic tend to really tap into all kinds of associations that we might even unconsciously have about certain places. And it tends to, unfortunately, bring out the worst in us,” Keller tells NBC15 News. “I can only hope that we can try to think a little more rationally about what we can really do to protect our health, and it has very little to do with what someone looks like."

Experts remind us the odds of contracting the Coronavirus are very slim. You can only catch it from being in close contact with someone who already has the virus.

"This did originate in China. That doesn’t mean that the Chinese are likelier to spread it than anyone else," Keller says.

The symptoms are similar to the flu: fever, cough and shortness of breath. If you are experiencing the symptoms, and have been in close proximity to someone recently in Wuhan, China, contact your doctor right away.