Why Some COVID Variants Are More Racialized Than Others

As COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in India in late April, an alarmist message began making the rounds of U.S. social media.

“Edison or New Jersey shouldn’t become another India,” it read. “If you live in any community where Indians live, please avoid going to any common places like playground or pool or parks to avoid contacts with them.”

The message prompted concerns that the outbreak of the “Indian variant,” as it was so-called by news organizations like BBC, Reuters and the Economist, had the potential to cause a racial backlash against South Asian Americans, similar to what East Asian Americans have experienced over the course of the pandemic.

So far, the worst fears of this scapegoating have not materialized in public reports. As of late June, anti-Indian incidents comprised 2.2% of the more than 9,000 incidents collected nationally by Stop AAPI Hate, up slightly from 1.8% through the end of March. This rate was much lower than those for Chinese-Americans (43.5%), Korean-Americans (16.8%), Filipino-Americans (9.1%), Japanese-Americans (8.6%) and Vietnamese-Americans (8.2%).

The organization said it hasn’t yet determined whether harassment and hate incidents specifically related to the delta variant are increasingly occurring against Indian-Americans.

Various reasons can explain why East Asians have been targeted but South Asians haven’t. Experts cite timing, U.S. foreign policy and the fact that Joe Biden is the current president rather than Donald Trump.

China, Not India, Was Ground Zero

Melody Goodman, a scholar at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, said the fact the pandemic began in one country and not the other largely explains how things have played out.

“If it would have started in Indian and been named after that place (instead of the delta variant) there would likely have been discrimination against Indians,” said Goodman.

Others disagree, arguing that the demonization of China—and by extension, East Asian Americans—has long been at the heart of U.S. foreign policy

“There’s the notion that the Chinese are quote-unquote ‘taking over the world.’ So there’s a sense of threat,” said John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University. “That would lend itself to there being a stereotypical moniker for a pandemic based on them as opposed to South Asians.”

In earlier eras, both Chinese and Indian immigrants were subjected to intense xenophobia and mob violence at the hands of white Americans, who warned of the ‘Yellow Peril’ and ‘A Tide of Turbans.’ In 1907, an article in Pacific Monthly warned of a ‘Hindu Invasion:’

“British Columbia and the United States are the green fields toward which the ever-hungry hordes of India are eagerly looking. They have found the gap and are pouring in.”

In subsequent years, the U.S. passed highly-restrictive immigration laws, which would only be fully-reversed in 1965. But the xenophobia of earlier eras never disappeared, and was refracted by U.S. foreign policy, including the ’loss of China” to communism in 1949, seen by many in the political establishment as catastrophic.

“The China it knew—Pearl Buck’s peasants, rejoicing in the good earth—had been dependable, democratic, warm and above all pro-American,” wrote William Manchester in his 1973 book The Glory and the Dream. “Everything American diplomats had achieved in Europe—the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO—momentarily seemed annulled by this disaster in Asia.”

In its latest report, Stop AAPI Hate connected geopolitical developments to bouts of anti-Asian violence and harassment.

“China’s fall to Communism and its involvement in the Korean War heightened political emotions around the 1950s Red Scare of communism infiltration. Senator Joe McCarthy and other politicians exploited this fear as the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI investigated suspects. The government also targeted and surveilled the Chinese American community, especially through the “Chinese Confession Program.”

Yanzhong Huang, the director of Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, said that the varying responses to China and India were based on earlier ideas about those countries, despite the “authoritarian approaches” of the Modi government.

“They still treated India as a democracy and China as an authoritarian state,” he said. “That kind of dichotomy will continue to shape our understanding, in terms of who would be responsible for the rapid spread of the virus in each country.”

And President Donald Trump arguably expanded the wedge further between how the U.S. treats China versus India.

“We don’t have someone standing in front of the country, mocking China, and making a direct correlation between China and the pandemic, and using really stupid terms like ‘Kung flu,’” said Elanah Uretsky, a medical anthropologist at Brandeis University whose work focuses on China.

“A ‘Delhi Flu’ moniker wouldn’t catch on,” McWhorter added. “Nobody is mad at Mumbai.”

It’s Not the Virus, It’s the Cover-up

China didn’t help its own cause with its lack of transparency over the origins of COVID-19, according to Avinash Singh, a historian at Brandeis University, said

“As for now, in contrast to China’s widely publicized blunders and cover-ups, India’s second COVID-19 wave, which gave rise to the delta variant, was seen as a humanitarian disaster despite the government’s bungled response,” said Singh.

The recent effort to decouple India from the delta variant came from various directions, including the Indian government and the World Health Organization.

In May, according to Reuters, Indian officials urged social media companies to take down “any content that refers to an ‘Indian variant’ of the coronavirus.” Not long after, the WHO decided to rename all variants using a Greek-letter system, resulting in the ‘Indian variant’ being labeled ‘delta.’

The Greek-letter-naming shift is a novelty brought on by all of the present day attacks on Asians in the COVID-19 era,” said Jeff Yang, a writer and host of the podcast They Call Us Bruce.

Dr. Vin Gupta, an Indian-American physician, makes frequent appearances on TV and has developed a significant social media following with his commentary on COVID-19. He said he has received anti-Indian remarks as the delta variant spread.

“I’ve had individuals directly email me or on social media, make comments about how this is unsurprising, since India is such a dirty country, and of course a variant like this would end up arising in a country like India. Because that’s a backward third world country where nobody practices good hygiene,” Gupta said.

Still, he argued that another stereotype had gained more traction: of desis as prominent and trusted healthcare providers. These include Sanjay Gupta, Celine Gounder, Kavita Patel and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, all medical experts who are familiar to cable TV viewers.

“I mean, if you just go down the list,” said Gupta, “every major network has a few South Asian docs that are sort of dominant as their go-to’s.”

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