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Fighting Racism in the Time of Coronavirus

By Quinn Liu
Quinn Liu is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“Protect yourself and don’t wear masks,” said my mom, who had been staying at home for two months in Beijing due to coronavirus, in March. When I asked her why, since the virus was starting to hit the United States hard, she explained, “You are Chinese. People will beat you up. Wait until the white people wear masks first.”

Yes, I am a Chinese student in America. But I am not the virus — nor are millions of other Asians in the country.

I hate the coronavirus. I hate the fact that the coronavirus is weakening and killing people all around the world. I have friends and family members of friends here in the U.S. who have gotten sick or even died. And I feel so useless that I can’t do much to stop it.

Recently, some people, including top leaders in this country, magically transformed the coronavirus into the “Chinese virus.” Asian people are getting yelled at, coughed at, and even attacked in the streets. In the past month, the Stop AAPI Hate center has received almost 1,500 reports of coronavirus discrimination from Asian Americans across the nation. I’ve never heard that not eating Chinese noodles or fried rice could make the virus go away. But it seems that blaming and hurting people from other racial groups can make some people feel better.

I still remember, two years ago, after a flight of almost twenty hours, I arrived here in America from China. Many of the amazing professors, classmates, and friends at the Kennedy School who have made me feel like I have a second home here, told me: “This is America. This is the land of equality, of democracy, of freedom of speech, of the great values and opportunities that many other countries cannot compete with. And here, we learn to work together with others and help people around the world to achieve such great values and opportunities.”

Unfortunately, I have seen that this is not always the case. I have seen cases where equality depends on race and gender. I have seen cases where international cooperation is just a nice way to say international competition. And increasingly, as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, I have seen cases where freedom of speech has led to irresponsible, hateful, xenophobic comments.

But I still believe in those ideals. I know we can be much nicer to each other and we can do much better together.

It is true that the first case of coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China. Early denials there of the truth about the virus cost lives. But we learned that responsibility to the truth and to the public are keys to alleviating the problem. Many healthcare workers, such as Dr. Li Wenliang from Wuhan, sacrificed their lives to such responsibility. It is their hard work, as well as people’s caring and support, that got the virus under control. It is not racism or scandal that made people feel better.

Blaming and hurting each other can never lead us to the real solutions to the health crisis, which are science and cooperation. While some people use their freedom of speech to vent, to say hateful things, and to blame others, we, my colleagues and friends, have the responsibility not to abuse freedom of speech. We have the responsibility to use our freedom of speech to counter the hateful words and to show support for fellow human beings, especially those who are in trouble and in pain.

We are frustrated, we are tired, we are depressed, we are lonely. I am not saying that Asians are more hurt than many others, who may be more physically, financially, or mentally vulnerable. But while the coronavirus is causing people to be physically separated, we should not let it cut our emotional ties. It is not the U.S. against China. It is human against coronavirus.

So please stop calling it the Chinese virus. Use your words, use your actions, and use your influence to stop conducting and tolerating xenophobic languages and racist behaviors. Please show support and empathy for your fellow human beings. I am convinced that with our caring, our support, our responsibility for each other, we, all the people around the world, will win the war against the coronavirus and win the war against racism.

Quinn Liu is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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