“Target doesn’t have any. Walmart doesn’t have any,” the man on the phone in South Philly’s Target said. “Yeah, they confirmed two or three cases in Pennsylvania.”
I saw it for myself: rack after empty rack that once held every variety of first-aid disinfectant. Or at least those you used to be able to buy, before the latest model in coronaviruses (COVID-19).
The first Philly scare
The first real ping of unease I felt was after headlines in late January about a possible case of coronavirus at Philly’s private William Penn Charter School—but not because I was worried about getting sick. The student in question was part of a longstanding exchange program between Penn Charter and a school in China. He flew with his classmates to the US from his home city after a quick layover in Wuhan, where the virus was first identified in December.
“Philadelphia Health Officials Investigating Possible Coronavirus Case at William Penn Charter School in East Falls,” CBS3 said on January 27 (one of many similar headlines). The teen felt sick the previous week, and was in isolation as a precaution. “When outside, he wears a mask to make sure the virus isn’t spreading,” the story went on—even though “the virus” in question was not actually confirmed at the time, and was not, as we quickly learned, COVID-19.
Sick after flying
Since the sick student had (however briefly) passed through Wuhan, it’s understandable that Penn Charter quarantined him and checked for the germ du jour. But if he hadn't been Chinese, would headlines about a young traveler’s cold have proliferated in local newsrooms and mushroomed on social media?
Are this kid and I the only people who ever experienced flulike symptoms after a multistop, intercontinental, midwinter flight? Is it even possible to traverse an ocean in the flying virus barrels we call airplanes without catching something?
Sadly, the response to the Penn Charter headlines was overwhelming. The remainder of the Chinese kids’ US trip was canceled—as was the Penn Charter kids’ planned trip to China—within a day of the news breaking, before the COVID-19 test even had a chance to come back negative. Subsequent reporting noted that the school ended its exchange program.
I was confused. I called Penn Charter to find out if the trip was ended early, or if the program itself was canceled. A spokesperson assured me the exchange program wasn’t terminated—the school will resume it in the future and the wording of a statement about the cancellation had been misleading.
Why didn’t local outlets bother to clarify this distinction? Was it easier to imply that no more Chinese students would visit Penn Charter, as a satisfying close to the story?
Meanwhile, in Chinatown
I was skeptical at first when I read that Chinatown restaurants were taking a hit. Were locals afraid sickness might lurk in their soup dumplings—or in their neighbors of Asian heritage, who are no more likely to have the virus than anyone else? I enjoyed Craig LaBan’s timely February Inquirer guide to new and revamped Chinatown gems.
In mid-February, I passed by the ever-popular Dim Sum Garden on Race Street, with a noisy line all the way out the door on a weekend evening. One night last weekend, I passed by and saw that the line was only a few people deep. I hope it was a coincidence, but I’m afraid it’s not.
A March 4 NPR story on the Code Switch podcast, “When Xenophobia Spreads Like a Virus,” detailed escalating harassment of Asian people in majority-white countries around the world—especially on public transit.
A Philly friend whose parents are Chinese texted me describing a man harassing him on the New York City subway. “Dude gets on, saw me and two Asians with me and started going into coronavirus,” he said. “My friend punched the ceiling of the subway car. I yelled, ‘Yo, fucking chill!’ [The man] left the car.”
The same friend posted on social media, noting that people wouldn’t sit next to him on the Market-Frankford Line.
While racism hit home, the virus did, too—just when I was anxious to downplay its seriousness, because of the racism spreading around it. Last weekend, on my way to the store that was already empty of sanitizers, I got a notification from my Airbnb host for a trip I’m planning later this month.
There’s an outbreak of coronavirus in the city a few miles away from my host, and two confirmed deaths. Meanwhile, my roommate told me that one of her friends in New York City has a confirmed case (now recovering fine). I didn’t expect the thing to reach travel-jeopardizing, friend-of-a-friend proportions so quickly.
That’s why I have two easy suggestions for you. First, visit the World Health Organization’s website on coronavirus. There are pages and pages of info, including day-by-day infection statistics; accessible, no-nonsense FAQs about the virus and who’s at special risk; ways to protect yourself and others; and instructions for what to do immediately if you feel under the weather with a headache, sore throat, cough, or fever.
Second, visit an exhibition from the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF), in partnership with the Japanese American Citizens League, running at City Hall through March 20, 2020 (part of the Art in City Hall program). It’s called American Peril, and it’s curated by PAAFF board chair and BSR writer Rob Buscher. The show explores the history of anti-Asian propaganda in America, with artifacts of overt mass-market racism. It’s paired with Faces of the Enemy, a series of thought-provoking photographic portraits featuring modern US individuals and families holding the exhibition's examples of racist pictures, artifacts, and ephemera.
The exhibit is free to view in the second-floor corridor in front of Mayor Kenney’s office, and the fourth-floor corridor near City Council Chambers. You can catch it Monday through Friday, 10am to 4pm. Have a look, and ask yourself whether (even if it’s just by not speaking up) we’ll let coronavirus become the latest in a long line of justifications for anti-Asian racism in the US.
Go see the show, and then give your hands a thorough wash—as you should do no matter where you’ve been. Especially in Philly, we don’t have to call coronavirus fears illogical to call out racism.
Image description: a screengrab of a Facebook post from a person named Jimmy Chang reads, "Nobody is sitting next to me on the EL. Their fear/racism is showing."
What, When, Where
American Peril is running at City Hall through March 20. The show is free to visit during open hours.