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How using terms like “Chinese virus” hurts Asian Americans

Racial bias against Asian Americans has been slowly decreasing in the US since 2007. However, when COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, it only took three weeks for the level of implicit bias against Asian Americans to jump back to 2017 levels.

A recent UC Berkeley study suggested this was one of the immediate impacts of US media outlets using terms such as “Chinese Virus” or “Wuhan Virus” to describe COVID-19.

“These kinds of events and rhetoric are what we would call a ‘social shock’ that can really take our progress and send it sideways,” said Eli Michaels, PhD candidate at Berkeley Public Health, co-author of the study, which was published in the journal Health Education & Behavior in September.

On March 8, there was a 650 percent increase in Twitter retweets using terms like “Chinese Virus.” The next day, there was an 800 percent increase in the use of the same terms in conservative news media articles. To see how this change in media tone affected bias against Asian Americans, researchers analyzed a dataset from nearly 340,000 non-Asian respondents of the “Asian Implicit Association,” a project designed and conducted by the non-profit organization Project implicit, from January 2007 through March 2020.

The results suggest that from March 8 to March 30, 2020, the level of implicit racial bias against Asian Americans not only increased for the first time in 13 years of steady decline, but also increased enough to offset more than three years of prior progress.

The study also provides evidence that Asian Americans have been increasingly stereotyped as “perpetual foreigners” since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Racial bias and stereotypes can lead to hiring discrimination and ultimately health inequities for Asian American communities. “Racial discrimination is a persistent source of stress,” said Michaels, “that stress can cause direct impacts on cardiovascular health and a number of health outcomes that predispose us to chronic disease.”

The study sounds an alarm about the effects of stigmatizing terms used by the media on the health and welfare of Asian Americans.

“The use of this stigmatizing language was very intentional, and we are seeing the consequences of that,” said Michaels.