Medical Anthropologist Anahí Viladrich Addresses Why COVID Sparked Anti-Asian Hate and What to Do About It

Anahí Viladrich (Photo courtesy of Viladrich)

By Lida Tunesi

As a medical anthropologist who studies race, ethnicity, and public health, Professor Anahí Viladrich (GC/Queens, Sociology) felt a need to speak out against the outbreak of stigma against Chinese and East Asian populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was shocked by the stigmatizing discourse of the Trump administration,” Viladrich told The Graduate Center, “along with the hate-based messages, discrimination, and violence against Asian communities. I clearly found an escalating trend there and felt that I needed to understand it better, and contribute somehow to raising awareness about the root causes of the symbolic violence ingrained in white supremacy discourses and practices.”

Viladrich addressed these problems in an analytic essay published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Viladrich’s article first reviews the history of stigma placed on developing countries and marginalized populations in relation to infectious diseases. For instance, HIV was originally dubbed Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID. The Ebola epidemic of 2014 to 2016 was mostly limited to certain areas of West Africa, Viladrich wrote, but people began to associate it with the entire continent, fanning the flames of anti-African racism.

While much of today’s anti-Asian stigma is rooted in the mindsets of individuals, Viladrich said that politicians have also played a prominent role. By pointing the finger of blame at people of Asian ethnicities and using nativist “us against them” narratives, she wrote, politicians can evoke emotional responses and thus political support in their constituents.

“In the United States, the pervasive xenophobic tenets of the Trump administration soon propelled the racist stigmatization of ethnic and racial minorities, both at home and abroad,” Viladrich wrote. “President Trump’s use of expressions such as ‘Kung Flu’ … contributed to reinforcing racist stigma.” However, as she noted, anti-Asian racism and even policy are not new in the U.S., as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese American incarceration during World War II darkly illustrate.

Finally, Viladrich makes the case that we need to expand our battle against this stigma. While the World Health Organization and other groups have created strategies to spread accurate information, address misinformation, and stop biased language, the U.S. and the world in general need a more intersectional approach. This should address factors like job and housing insecurity that have made it even more difficult for certain populations to weather the pandemic, Viladrich wrote.

In addition to race and ethnicity, Viladrich’s research interests also include migration, globalization, and gender, and she has published on everything from ethnomedicine and religious healing to medical tourism. Her work focuses on the U.S., Spain, and Latin America, especially Cuba and Argentina, where Viladrich herself is originally from.

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Submitted on: MAY 5, 2021

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