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No room for the blame game during COVID-19 pandemic

Health and safety threats from the pandemic, economic tragedy, shelter-in-place orders and a palpable sense of unease are creating a blame game and backlash against Asian Americans and Jews.

Three members of the State of Massachusetts’ Asian American Commission stand together during a protest on March 12, 2020, on the steps of the Statehouse in Boston.
Three members of the State of Massachusetts’ Asian American Commission stand together during a protest on March 12, 2020, on the steps of the Statehouse in Boston.
AP Photos

At times when individuals and society as a whole feel out of control, isolated and fearful, we often look for someone to blame.

One only needs to look at the history of the 1930s when one of the most extreme forms of “the blame game” took place. Hitler and the Nazi party faulted Jews, people with disabilities, Roma and Sinti, and those deemed “undesirable” for the dire economic, political and social challenges facing Germany.

Most citizens in Nazi Germany looked for a scapegoat, a rationalization for their fear and uncertain future. They remained silent as they witnessed the persecution and discrimination of their neighbors being ostracized and dehumanized through the power of hateful language and rhetoric.

In our current world, health and safety threats from the pandemic, lost jobs, economic tragedy, canceled events, “shelter in place” orders and a palpable sense of unease are creating another “blame game” and backlash against Asian Americans and Jews.

Judy Chu, D-Calif., confirmed “at least 1,000 hate crimes incidents being reported against Asian Americans” after the pandemic arrived stateside.

“In recent weeks, there has been a surge in messaging that Jews and/or Israel manufactured or spread the coronavirus to advance their global control. This trope traces back to at least the 14th century when Jews were accused of poisoning wells in order to spread the bubonic plague,” says The Anti-Defamation League in a recent posting.

A National Public Radio story on March 4, When Xenophobia Spreads like a Virus, asked Asian Americans to share their experiences with pandemic-related discrimination. The result was an unprecedented outpouring of stories. ”Judging by the volume of emails, comments and tweets we got in response,” NPR reported, “the harassment has been intense for Asian Americans across the country — regardless of ethnicity, location or age.”

From that report:

”After a while, she said, he confronted her outright, saying: “Get out of here. Go back to China. I don’t want none of your swine flu here.” A week later, on a Muni train in San Francisco, another man yelled the same thing to her — “Go back to China” — and even threatened to shoot her.”

Some social media users are sharing messages and memes on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit linking all Chinese people and people of Chinese-descent with the virus and implying that they should be feared because of their ethnicity.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a group that works to prevent and document hate crime incidents against Asian Americans, has begun tracking these increasingly common occurrences. The Anti-Defamation League also is documenting how the coronavirus crisis is elevating antisemitic and racist stereotypes, detailing new messaging, and how age old age old prejudices are being repackaged to fit this pandemic. For example, some are accusing Jews of purposely spreading the virus, and other antisemites have portrayed Jews as a virus, framing them as malignant and something that needs to be “cured.”

We cannot allow these sentiments to take hold. We cannot allow our collective fear to overpower fundamental respect for our neighbors and accelerate “the blame game.” As Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, recently said, this disease is “reminding us that we are all equal, regardless of our culture, religion, occupation, or how famous we are. This disease treats us all equally.”

And while history has taught us the danger of “othering,” it also has shown us the power of kindness and what is possible when we raise our voices to support our fellow human beings.

This is the time to support each other and come together as we all experience various degrees of fear, isolation, and a sense of loss during this pandemic. This is the time to reconnect with family and friends (virtually!), take a deep breath, and wait for life to recalibrate to a new normal.

Marcy L. Larson is vice president for marketing, communications and business development at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

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