Words by Dr. Michele Kong
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a public health crisis that has caused millions of lives lost, and has left many more with devastating chronic health consequences. In December of 2019, the world first heard of a new infection causing pneumonia in Wuhan, China. By January of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first COVID-19 case in our country, and before the end of the month, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global health emergency. As our country learnt the new norm of social distancing, masking, school closures and stay-at home orders—as a pediatric intensivist, I also took care of critically ill children as they presented to our intensive care unit with acute COVID-19. As I faced this virus day in and day out while treating my patients, something else as equally powerful began to unfold. Asian Americans became the scapegoat and targets for harassments, racial slurs, verbal and physical attacks. As the number of deaths increased, negative attitudes towards Asian Americans increased in parallel.
How could this have happened? While the cause is likely multifactorial, the repeated reference of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”, “China virus”, Wuhan virus and even as Kung flu fueled the misconception and bias against Asians. The use of such terminology and rhetoric in the media, social platforms, and even from some of our country’s leaders early on gave wings to the anti-Asian sentiments and hate crimes.
At a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas, an Asian American family including two young victims, merely 2 and 6-years old at that time was brutally attacked and slashed with a knife. The assailant told police that the victims were Chinese and infecting others with the coronavirus (1). An Asian woman in in Brooklyn was doused with acid by a stranger as she was taking out her trash, causing second degree burns to her body and face (2). A 23-year old Asian woman was grabbed by the hair and punched in the face resulting in a dislocated jaw (3). The assailant reportedly screamed at the victim, stating “You’ve got coronavirus, you Asian (expletive).” An 84-year old Thai man died after he was violently shoved to the ground (4). An elderly Cantonese speaking woman was assaulted and set on fire as she was walking on the streets (5). Yesterday, 8 people were killed in Georgia, 6 of them, Asian women (6). Today, I woke up to the news of an elderly Chinese woman who was attacked and punched in the eye by a stranger, unprovoked in San Francisco. The video of her after the attack was heart-breaking—she was not only physically injured, but clearly shaken and terrified (7). These incidents are not isolated. They have occurred throughout the country, with nearly 3,800 instances of discrimination against Asians reported in the past year (8).
Sadly, these hate crimes are nothing new. History is clear in that Asian Americans have experienced violence motivated by racism and xenophobia from the time they arrived in America in the late 1700s. COVID-19 has merely enabled the spread of these anti-Asian racism and sentiments.
This has to stop. It must stop. It is critical that we take a stand against racial hatred before it becomes too late. We need to face these discriminations head-on. We need to stop being passive bystanders. We need to demand a response from our leaders and our government to pass laws and create procedures to protect our community. We need to educate our peers that these anti-hate crimes are real and not isolated incidents. We need to protect our children, so that they do not grow up in fear.
We are all Americans. Only in unity is there strength. Division along racial lines will only tear down our country in a time where unity is essential. As Americans, the diversity of our ethnic and racial identities is what makes our country unique and exceptional. We are all part of the fabric that makes America who she is. Arguably, America’s ability to integrate people from all over the world, without regard of where they come from, their religion, race, or ethnicity is one of the most critical factors that defines our country’s greatness. During the signing of the Immigration Bill, President Lyndon B. Johnson summed up what this diversity means: “Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide”.
I am not a virus. I am a mother, daughter, and sister. I am your doctor, colleague, neighbor, and friend. I stand with my Asian brothers and sisters, and I urge you to do the same. While hope is in the horizon, COVID-19 continues to be a major threat to us all. Let us not let COVID-19 be the catalyst and fuel of another bigger and worse threat—that of racism, hate, and division—which if we are not careful will remain even after we defeat this virus.
Michele Kong, M.D.
Dr. Michele Kong is originally from the island of Borneo and went to Canada in pursuit of her medical degree. She graduated from the University of Calgary, Canada and furthered her training as a pediatric critical care physician at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Dr. Kong is the co-founder of KultureCity, an international nonprofit with the mission to rethink accessibility to create acceptance and inclusion for all individuals regardless of their challenges and diagnosis. She practices medicine as an intensivist at Children's Hospital of Alabama and is an NIH funded physician scientist at UAB. She is a highly regarded speaker, and well published in high-impact medical and non-medical journals. She was recently awarded the 2019 Woman of Impact Award, which recognizes the honoree’s personal and professional contributions to the State of Alabama that have moved the needle across business, government and non-profit sectors. At UAB, her contribution to the field, and service to the community was recognized with the UAB Dean’s Excellence Award in Service, UAB Outstanding Woman in the Community Award, and the Odessa Woolfolk Community Service Award. Michele is also an avid ultrarunner and competed in a 100 mile race in 2019.