When I was a third year medical student on my surgery rotation, I wanted to observe a particular surgery, so I asked the attending physician if I might be able to scrub in with him. There was a pause during which I felt increasingly uncomfortable. And then, "Of course, a beautiful Asian woman is always welcome to join me." Even now 12 years later, hearing that line in my mind makes me cringe. But what could I do? The power differential was such that I was a student, and my grade was dependent on this man's subjective evaluation of me. I knew that much of what I would be judged on was not my knowledge but rather be based on the unconscious biases of my attending physician. But there was little I could do about it. I sat through an uncomfortable two hours of surgery, attempting to be as inconspicuous as possible while laughing nervously at moments when I knew I was being tested and expected to laugh - the same moments when misogynistic banter was being tossed around me. I was the only woman standing at the operating table. During that time, and for much of my life, my policy toward racist or sexist acts was to look away and pretend it didn't happen, for fear of making things worse for myself.
Now as a hospital medicine doctor working on the front lines of fighting the Coronavirus pandemic, I find it deeply disheartening that in our country and other nations around the world, we have seen a rise in hate crimes against Asians and a surge in racist media coverage of the pandemic. In my younger days, I would have simply looked away, but now I'm reminded of the slogan popularized after the tragedy of 9/11: See something, Say something.
I'm saying something now. I recently sent the letter below to the editor of the Wall Street Journal urging them to recant a biased, xenophobic article. During this time of pandemic, we are seeing the effects of institutional and interpersonal racism manifest in many ways, including the differentially higher rates of infection among African Americans and Latinos in this country. Now is a crucial time for all of us to fight racism in the media by confronting it and speaking out against it.
Letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal
Dear Mr. Lemmer,
Tonight I find myself awake at 230 AM. It is not only because of the night shift I had done the day prior or the high anxiety I’ve felt since the Coronavirus pandemic began. I hold an MD and Masters in Public Health and work as a hospital medicine physician in the front lines of defending our population against infection. I couldn’t fall asleep because of an article I had read in the Wall Street Journal from March 23 titled "China is not a Coronavirus Role Model" by John P. Walters. In this article, he calls Covid-19 a "communist virus" and blames the emergence of this pandemic on the Chinese government.
It's been known for decades that a novel virus, toward which we have no immunity, could arise and cause a new pandemic. This could happen at any time and anywhere. It is through no fault of the Chinese people that Covid-19 happened to emerge from Wuhan. Instead of bolstering compassion and solidarity toward the Chinese, Walters urges us to fall back on xenophobic and racist sentiment, to isolate ourselves and point the finger of blame solely at the Chinese.
Yes, the Chinese government was at fault in attempting to hush the emergence of the novel Coronavirus in the beginning, but after it became clear that Covid-19 was a true threat, they have taken drastic measures to contain the virus from spreading across China and the globe. Most of the data we have, which we are now using in the US to prevent and treat Covid-19, have come from the work of scientists and physicians in China.
Furthermore, it’s come to light that US health officials also delayed our ability to prepare effectively for the pandemic. For example, infectious disease specialist Dr. Helen Chu already had the means to test for Covid-19 through her lab, but she was forbidden to do so by health officials. When she went against their advice and tested anyway, her lab immediately discovered a case of community spread of the virus in Seattle, which implied it had actually been circulating for several weeks already. Another botch in the American response was the CDC’s initial requirement that all Covid testing be run only at the CDC or state health authorities, which led to a huge bottleneck in getting widespread testing available.
Governments across the world, including our own, have all made mistakes in fighting this pandemic. But this is not the time to allow political rhetoric and xenophobia to block our vision. We need to place the highest emphasis on science and make every decision based on that. We need more than ever to come together (virtually) and to acknowledge our shared humanity. At no time in our living history has the global wellness of our species been so threatened.
As a physician working on the front lines of fighting this pandemic, I find it deeply disheartening that in our country and other nations around the world, such as Italy, we have allowed racism and xenophobia to rear its ugly head again in this new permutation. The number of harassment and assault cases toward Asians in the US has increased dramatically in the past weeks. Many Asian Americans now fear for their own safety and the safety of their children. Everyday there are more cases of Asians in the US being cursed at, spit on, and even physically assaulted as racism surges alongside the number of new infectious cases.
This situation is only made worse by bigoted articles in the media that encourage xenophobia toward China. Walters called Covid-19 a “communist virus,” which is absurd considering that the virus itself is nonpartisan and does not discriminate against race or political leaning in who it infects and kills. This type of microaggression is further highlighted by our own President calling the novel Coronavirus “the Chinese virus.”
Please do your part in fighting this pandemic by reporting in a scientifically sound way that is free from xenophobic and racist content. I would like to request that the Wall Street Journal recant the aforementioned article as an expression of apology to all Americans who stand against racism