By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER, Rafu Staff Intern
Los Angeles public officials, health experts, and community leaders gathered downtown Thursday morning to show support for Asian American Pacific Islanders facing racist responses to the coronavirus.
According to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), which hosted the news conference, AAPI Angelenos have become the target of verbal and physical harassment in recent weeks. As fear-mongering and inaccurate rumors increase, A3PCON organized the conference to provide resources for community members.
The World Health Organization reports that as of Feb. 14, there have been 48,548 laboratory-confirmed cases of the coronavirus in China. Of the 15 cases in the United States, one case has been reported in L.A. County.
According to A3PCON Executive Director Manju Kulkarni, AAPI community members have been told they are dangerous carriers of the virus, and AAPI business and restaurant owners have reported steep declines in patronage. In early February, a petition on Change.org calling for the cancellation of classes in the Alhambra school district racked up nearly 14,000 signatures, according to The L.A. Times.
AAPI people have also been harassed on social media, and rumors have spread targeting AAPI students in school communities.
The event’s speakers stressed the importance of adhering to facts, rather than stereotypes, when considering the coronavirus — highlighting fear and a lack of accurate information as roots of the mounting bigotry. Members of A3PCON, a coalition of more than 40 community organizations representing L.A. County’s 1.5 million AAPIs, stood in solidarity with the speakers behind the podium.
AAPI Angelenos are “being treated as unwanted or as though they don’t belong — in a place they’ve lived their entire life,” said Robin Toma, executive director of the L.A. County Human Relations Commission. The act of telling someone not to patronize a business due to its Asian ownership constitutes a civil rights violation, he added.
The event’s speakers condemned the first known coronavirus-related hate crime in L.A. County. Last week, a group of middle-schoolers beat up their classmate, accusing him of carrying the coronavirus because he is Asian. The student was hospitalized, said Kulkarni, whose council is working to provide support for the victim’s family.
“We will not tolerate any type of racial profiling in our schools,” said L.A. County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo. “Schools should not even consider being closed because of this virus.”
A3PCON Mental Health Committee Co-Chair Herb Hatanaka reported that AAPI community members are experiencing depression due to the racist reactions. “Health services can be helpful in alleviating what can otherwise be longstanding trauma,” he said. “We’re prepared today to offer mental health counseling. We’re acutely sensitive to anything personal and emotional in our community.”
Toma said that L.A. County places staff in 15 school communities, in order to directly link students to mental health services. He urged anyone who has experienced or witnessed discrimination to call 211, the county’s central hub for information regarding health and human services. The line is available 24/7, and staffed by community resource advisors prepared to offer support.
“There are people who are traumatized right now,” said First District Supervisor Hilda L. Solis. “We have to have places where they can go and feel safe, supported. That’s why we’re here today, to talk about this in an open manner.”
Solis also called for an end to the recent spread of inaccurate information about the coronavirus, holding up a flier that circulated last month online. The flier displayed falsified logos of the L.A. County Department of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO). It announced a coronavirus outbreak in Carson and Torrance, and listed businesses not to visit in those areas.
“False news can be misinterpreted,” said Solis. “People need to make sense of this, and seek assistance when necessary.”
Toma situated such irrational responses to coronavirus within a larger context of anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, noting the sour trade relationship between the two countries and stereotypical imagery proliferated by U.S. mass media. He addressed the current trend of xenophobic backlash to the virus as an outcome of “combin[ing] existing prejudices with fear and hysteria.”
Toma, whose commission tracks hate crimes annually, linked the backlash to hostility towards other communities of color. he called on listeners “to not repeat history, not let rumors get the best of us in these times.” He offered three actions people can take: be clear about facts, question assumptions, and speak out against racism when it happens to oneself or others.
Dr. Sharon Balter, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health’s Division of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention, stressed that the immediate risk to the general public in the county is low. She also warned against sensationalist media portrayals of the virus, adding that while the virus’ newness and unknown features may contribute to growing fear, these are no reasons to act irrationally.
As for methods of disease prevention, Balter suggested hand-washing and coughing into one’s elbow as more effective than spreading anti-AAPI bigotry. “Outbreaks and pandemics are human tragedies that affect us all,” she said.
Speaking in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin, Chinatown Service Center Executive Director Peter Ng said he tells his clients not to be afraid. “If someone [harasses] you, please let us know.”
To file a report and connect with support services, call 211. If calling from outside of L.A. County, dial (800) 339-6993. Visitors to the 211 website can also file a“Hate Incident Report Form” as either a victim, victim advocate, or witness.