Asian community warns of coronavirus backlash

Paula Katinas

February 07, 2020

Originally published in Brooklyn Eagle on February 07, 2020.

“One thing that I think is more dangerous than the spread of germs is the spread of misinformation."

There are no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in New York City as of yet, but fear and panic are rapidly spreading throughout the five boroughs, particularly in Asian American neighborhoods, where residents fear not only the virus itself but xenophobia and racist attacks because of it.  

The fear is palpable in neighborhoods like Bensonhurst, which have large populations of Chinese Americans, according to Brooklyn community leaders who are urging residents to remain calm.

Councilmember Mark Treyger, a Democrat representing Coney Island, Gravesend and parts of Bensonhurst, decried what he said were dangerous acts of discrimination against Chinese Americans by bigots who are using the fact that the coronavirus originated in China as an excuse to attack Asians here.

As an example, Treyger pointed to the shocking case in which an Asian woman wearing a surgical mask on her face was assaulted by a suspect as she entered the Grand Street station in Manhattan’s Chinatown at around 6 p.m. on Feb. 2.

Treyger also cited incidents he had heard about anecdotally, including cases in which Asian students and teachers have been bullied and harassed in schools.

“There is an uptick in comments and slurs against Asian students and staff. That is bullying. That is wrong. That is unacceptable,” Treyger said at the press conference at the Salvation Army’s Bensonhurst Corps at 7307 18th Ave.

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat representing several neighborhoods in Southwest Brooklyn, agreed.

“We will not let this be an excuse for racism,” Gounardes said.

Treyger urged anyone who is attacked or discriminated against to report it to the police.

In another troubling development, Treyger said there are signs that the city’s economy is taking a hit because of coronavirus concerns.

There are reports that business has slowed in Asian American commercial areas, as shoppers fearful of contracting the virus stay away, said Treyger. “There are people who are afraid to shop in Asian American corridors. That is hurting Asian American business owners,” he said.

Several of the speakers at the press conference said fear remains high, despite the absence of confirmed coronavirus cases in the city, and despite efforts by officials to calm residents.

Ansen Tang, office manager of the United Chinese Association, said one pharmacy in the neighborhood completely sold out its supply of surgical masks in one day as nervous customers sought ways to protect themselves.

Councilmember Justin Brannan, a Democrat representing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and parts of Bensonhurst, said the city has a good handle on the coronavirus.

Brannan added, however, that he is worried about the damage that rumors and misinformation can do. “One thing that I think is more dangerous than the spread of germs is the spread of misinformation,” he said.

Assemblymember William Colton, a Democrat who represents Gravesend and parts of Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights, said his office and the offices of other local elected officials will seek to disseminate accurate, up-to-the-minute information to combat rumors about how the coronavirus is spread and the number of people who have contracted the virus.

“This is not something that is an epidemic here,” Colton said.

As of Feb. 7, there were two patients being tested for coronavirus, according to Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, deputy commissioner of infectious diseases for the New York City Department of Health. There had been five patients identified for testing based on their symptoms and travel history, but tests on three of those patients came back negative for coronavirus from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. 

The DOH is still awaiting the test results from the other two patients, Daskalakis said.

There have been more than 30,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus worldwide since the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, according to 1010WINS News. As of Feb. 7, more than 600 people have died.

There are precautions New Yorkers can take to protect themselves and others, according to Daskalakis.

People who feel ill and suspect they have the Coronavirus and plan to go to their doctor should call the doctor’s office first, he said. The DOH is briefing doctors on how to handle patients suspected of having the virus. “Call ahead if you plan to see your doctor,” he said.

Dr. Jianlin Wu, an internist affiliated with NYU Langone Hospital – Brooklyn, urged those who believe they have the coronavirus to visit their doctor, not a hospital emergency room. “Hospitals are overrun,” he said.