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Wash Your Hands and Be Kind to Strangers

Responding to COVID-19

Wash your hands and be kind to strangers, advice we may have dismissed as standard practice before the coronavirus (COVID-19) reared its ugly head.

But is it?

By now, we are all aware that we need to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds. The World Health Organization (WHO) published a video with almost two million views on how to wash our hands. It’s worth watching to make sure we are covering our bases. Just as COVID-19 has taught us about specific ways to wash our hands, we can also use the reminder about being kind to one another. Please hear me out.

COVID-19, now a pandemic, has been the cause of rumors and innuendos against Asians, which have resulted in an increase in xenophobia against them. The Tang Center at UC Berkeley apologized for an Instagram post that listed xenophobia among normal reactions to the coronavirus outbreak.

On March 11, 2020, the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) sent a letter, signed by 260 organizations to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy urging unity and denouncing the increase in racist attacks and discrimination against Asian Americans in the wake of concerns regarding COVID-19. The letter cites examples of Asian American harassment. In San Fernando, California, a 16-year old is accused of having the coronavirus and is attacked in his high school simply because of his race; a woman, apparently Asian and wearing a mask is assaulted in a New York subway station.

The United States is not alone in seeing an increase of xenophobia and hate crimes targeting Asians. In Australia, doctors urged the public to stop the spread of misinformation regarding the coronavirus after an increase in hate crimes against Asians.

Be kind to strangers. Asian Americans represent one-fifth of Orange County’s population. They are not immune to the increase of xenophobia around the world. In Garden Grove, two high school students mocked fellow Asian students during an assembly yelling “coronavirus.”

As public relations professionals, we understand that words matter. The WHO named the pandemic “COVID-19” to create a standard format and prevent the use of other names that can stigmatize. Calling the pandemic the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” can increase xenophobia.

Businesses are facing enormous financial challenges during this pandemic; some small businesses may not survive. For Asian American business owners, they’ve been meeting these challenges for a few months now – as soon as we started to hear about the coronavirus in China. I recently heard someone say that we are likely to find toilet paper, an item currently in high demand, in an Asian American store. This statement is probably true if many of the regular customers are avoiding Asian American businesses.

COVID-19 is challenging us to be unselfish, to flatten the curve, to stay at home not necessarily to protect ourselves but to prevent the spread of the virus. It’s challenging us to reach out to the elderly who have been the most impacted; it’s challenging us to support locally-owned small businesses – it’s challenging us to be an active bystander. A bystander observes unacceptable behavior; an active bystander takes steps that can make a difference – even if it’s just showing support. During this pandemic, let’s be kind to strangers, especially Asian Americans.

Dr. Inez González Perezchica is the Director of the Latino Communications Institute at Cal State University, Fullerton and has advocated against hate speech and xenophobia during her years working at the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC).

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