Administrators should respond to xenophobia surrounding coronavirus

The coronavirus has killed 800 people worldwide – but its damage might be more extensive than its death toll.

Coronavirus originated in China, where the vast majority of deaths have occurred. While there have only been 12 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., racism and discrimination toward Chinese individuals have been on the rise.

Despite the low risk of coronavirus spreading at American universities, colleges have prepared a response to the potential threat. At GW, officials sent emails to students reminding them to wash their hands and notified students of the location of hand-sanitizer throughout campus. But administrators have not responded to the possibility that the virus could lead people to act discriminatory toward Chinese international students.

The epidemic has served as an excuse for casual racism toward some international students, an issue that other campuses have experienced. A Duke University professor required international students to only speak English last year, and nearly one-third of international students say they feel discriminated against on campuses across the U.S. For international students from China and other Asian countries, coronavirus has presented an opportunity for domestic students to belittle and shame them based on their nationality. At one university, a student posted a Snapchat of their majority Asian class, captioned “I hope I don’t get coronavirus.” At the University of California Berkeley, administrators posted a flyer normalizing xenophobia as a response to the coronavirus.

While there have not been any documented cases of racism brought on by the coronavirus at GW, administrators should not wait before shutting down xenophobia and racism that could arise from the epidemic. Officials might not want to admit that an incident could occur at GW, but it is better to be precautionary than reactionary. GW should make it clear to the student body that using a public health crisis to act discriminatory toward Asian students is not acceptable.

At Arizona State University, administrators took a proactive approach to combat racism and xenophobia when news broke of the coronavirus and provided students with information about the crisis with details of the school’s diversity values. The University of Massachusetts at Boston – where one student was diagnosed with coronavirus – took a similar response. Administrators reminded students that anyone can get sick and that the campus community is composed of many types of people.

While the University has released some health information, they have not commented on the potential insensitive behavior the virus could elicit. Telling students to wash their hands might be helpful to prevent the spread of disease, but it does not stop acts of discrimination.

By addressing the coronavirus through health tips to students but not addressing the underlying xenophobia brought on by the virus, administrators are contributing to the problem. The reality of coronavirus is that students are unlikely to catch it, and sending health tips only raises fears. If administrators are trying to prevent coronavirus from impacting GW, they should make an effort to prevent racism too.

Kiran Hoeffner-Shah, a junior majoring in political science and psychology, is the opinions editor.

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