The past month in Bellingham had been déjà vu all over again for me.
I came back on February 10 from Hong Kong, where the COVID-19 epidemic had struck. Worried that I had been infected but was without symptoms, I put myself into two weeks of self-quarantine. It was not fun. But, with help from friends who left food and other necessities at my door, I got through it, avoiding contact, going for daily walks by wearing masks every time I left home, getting to the park only by driving, and practicing what is now known as social distancing. Resisting the urge to pat those dogs with pleading eyes and wagging tails was torture.
Two weeks finally passed. Jubilant, I texted friends, “Free at last!” Little did I know that I would soon be repeating the same routines again.
I should have suspected as much. Midway through my quarantine, news broke that COVID-19 was spreading in the U.S. I wasn’t too worried, because the outbreak, as reported by the media, did not seem as serious as it was in China, Hong Kong and the rest of Asia. Relieved that I was not infected, I started meeting with friends and going out to coffee, lunches and shops. How little I knew!
But I should have known, because I learned long ago that the mainstream media, despite its authoritative posturing, could be clueless when it came to new developments. The West, from officials to politicians to journalists, had regarded the epidemic as first a Chinese, and later an Asian, problem. But whether we like it or not, humanity has reached a stage of profound interdependence. Yet the West continues to look at the world from a western perspective. With ideological arrogance and – I hate to say this—racial condescension, both official statements and press coverage implied that it was China’s inferior system that allowed the crisis to get out of hand. America and Europe went about their business, ignoring warning signs that were becoming more and more ominous, until it was too late.
Only after death tolls accelerated did the West start to take things seriously. The crisis started with the Chinese government ignoring warning signs in the early stages. It escalated exponentially when governments in America and Europe did the same. For me, it was déjà vu all over again.
Eventually, the West took it seriously. Measures that China, Hong Kong and other Asian nations had implemented with success were reported in derisive or even dismissive terms by mainstream Western media. The New York Times called some of these measures “draconian” and “heavy-handed.” And then it came here: border closings, surges in testing, shelter-in-place lockdowns, social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks were encouraged or enforced. Déjà vu all over again.
Then came the supply shortages: masks, sanitizers, Clorox Wipes, toilet paper, zinc tablets, even food. Shelves were emptied in grocery stores all over America, just as they were in Hong Kong when I left. Déjà vu all over again.
Before I left, a friend in Hong Kong asked me to look for masks in Bellingham. The epidemic had brought out the best and worst in people. Some hoarded supplies and some, worse, sold them at jacked-up prices. Two knife-wielding men robbed a warehouse for toilet paper. But others were sharing masks, sanitizers and other supplies with those in need, whether they were friends or strangers. Volunteer efforts sprang up, enthusiastically responding at both the personal and collective level. My friend was among those who distributed masks. I couldn’t shop during my quarantine, so I called my sister in Texas. She combed her neighborhood the next day and found three packs of ten in three separate stores. She mailed them immediately, at a cost several times above the price of the masks.
Little did I know that five short weeks later, the situation would be reversed and I would ask the same Hong Kong friend to send my sister some masks. When America finally started to get serious about COVID-19, my sister could no longer find masks in Houston. She was worried because her husband has respiratory problems, making him particularly vulnerable. Meanwhile, the supply situation in Hong Kong had improved and my friend, learning about the shortage in America, offered to send me some. I asked her to send my sister some, too. Déjà vu all over again.
The virus also raised the ugly specter of racism. America’s original sin had gone through waves of ebb and flow in our nation’s history; progress would be made, followed by pushback. This is one of those pushback periods. Bashing Mexicans and other immigrants got President Trump elected. After winning the election, he gained loyal support partly by blaming every other American problem on China. He insists that he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body, while at the same time exploiting latent prejudices of ordinary Americans for political gain. Asian Americans have faced a steady surge of racism against them over the past three years, sometimes in blatant manners, but often subtly.
Sadly, America has become skillful at exercising racism. Trump calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referring to it as the “Wuhan virus” are prime examples. They find ready excuses to justify such use. If Asians complain, we will be labeled “whiners,” the way Elizabeth Warren believed people would say if she suggested her presidential run faced sexist prejudice.
Racism against Asians spiked worldwide after the COVID-19 outbreak. A Filipino woman was called “Chinese coronavirus bitch” on a California train. A Singaporean man was assaulted in London by a group of teenagers yelling “coronavirus.” A Burmese man and his young son were stabbed in Midland, Texas, the attack likely related to the pandemic. Other expressions were subtler, like a Korean American waiting in line at a grocery store who watched a man lift his jacket over his face and radically change course to avoid any encounter. Denigrating looks, muffled snickering, and undisguised whispering was common.
More than four years ago, at the beginning of the last presidential election cycle, I warned about China bashing in an article I wrote for the International Examiner, Seattle’s Asian American newspaper. I observed and predicted “…a sad thing about America” and that “prejudice of China-bashing will be extended to all Asians—Asian Americans included.” I cited an example from the 1980s when Japan was at the height of its global economic success, and American resentment was extended to all Asian Americans. “In a notorious incident, Chinese American Vincent Chin was mistaken as Japanese and murdered in Detroit, where the auto industry was hit hard by Japanese imports.”
It is déjà vu all over again.
Last December, a Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang, warned about the coronavirus, one of the first people to sound the alarm. Government officials quickly reprimanded him for spreading rumors. He later died of the virus, though his death was not a result of the official crackdown. Here in Whatcom County, emergency room physician Ming Lin warned about the inadequate response to the virus by PeaceHealth’s St. Joseph Medical Center. Hospital officials quickly reprimanded him. He was fired last Friday.
Déjà vu all over again.