Rosalind Vo was westbound on SEPTA’s Route 34 trolley, heading home from class at the University of the Arts on Friday, when she noticed a man watching her. It was the day after the World Health Organization had declared a global health emergency over coronavirus.
“He was the only guy wearing a medical mask, staring at me, and I was one of the only Asians on the trolley,” said Vo, 21, who is Vietnamese American. “I just felt off … especially when he took the mask off getting off the trolley.”
In the weeks since the epidemic emerged from China, Asians across the globe have recounted episodes of discrimination. No cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the Philadelphia region. But amid quarantines and travel alerts, fear is spreading faster than sickness in America.
“It just feels like I’m kind of an outsider, like they’re scared to be around me,” said Vo, who grew up in Perkasie, Bucks County. “Just because we’re Asian does not mean we have it."
Even without cases of the illness, the local impact of the virus first detected in Wuhan, China, has already been dramatic: College students studying in China or hoping to do so have had their semesters disrupted, and others have become stuck abroad. An area church serving Chinese Americans asked those who had recently returned from China to avoid coming to services and saw its Sunday attendance plunge.
Businesses and groups intending to celebrate the Lunar New Year have scuttled their plans. Even the Delaware Valley chapter of Families With Children From China, which supports and connects adoptive families, postponed its annual banquet.
In China, at least 425 people have died and more than 20,000 are infected, according to China’s National Health Commission, and at least 170 other cases have been confirmed in 27 countries around the world.
In the United States, 11 cases of coronavirus have been identified in five states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington, California, and Arizona. Nine of those people had traveled to China. Test results are still pending in 82 additional cases.
There have been no confirmed cases in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. Those states and 34 others initially reported more than 200 patients to the CDC as possible cases.
At least six New Year’s banquets have been canceled in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, where memories linger of the economic damage caused by 2003 rumors around the SARS virus. One church canceled some fellowships and streamed other classes online so people could stay home.
Meanwhile, a Chinese person wearing a surgical mask was reportedly pushed on a Washington subway car or platform on Monday evening by someone they believed was frightened of coronavirus, according to a spokesperson for the Fujian Association of Greater Philadelphia.
The issue is particularly acute at American colleges and universities, which both enroll Chinese nationals as students and participate in exchange programs that allow students to study in China. Students at Philadelphia-area schools said the virus has been a constant topic of discussion among their Asian American campus communities.
At least two students enrolled in area colleges are indefinitely stuck in quarantined Wuhan, and others elsewhere in China. One Lehigh University student in Wuhan will take her last course online so she can complete her master’s degree, said Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs. Two other Lehigh graduate students remain in China.
And a student from the University of Pennsylvania has been forced to take a leave of absence for the semester, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported, after he didn’t receive his expected student visa renewal in time for his trip back to Philadelphia and got stuck in Wuhan.
“There are hundreds of people [who are] very much suffering” in China, said Lark Yan, a Penn sophomore who penned an opinion piece for the school newspaper urging people not to respond to fear of coronavirus with racism. “I just wish that the general attitude, at least in America, in regards to coronavirus wouldn’t be one of fear of ‘Oh, my gosh, what if I get it?’ but more so, ‘How are these people doing? Are they OK? How can we help?’”
Colin Jiang, a 19-year-old freshman at Temple University from China’s Guangdong province, where his parents are confined at home, said he hasn’t personally experienced stereotyping or racism. But, he said, “I saw on Twitter lots of attacking language, abusing [language] towards us. I can’t understand that.”
Others said they’ve noticed awkward glances or quick “jokes” in an America that has a long history of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism — stretching back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which made it illegal for Chinese laborers to enter the U.S. and banned them from becoming American citizens.
Asians have been tagged as agents of disease even in the names of outbreaks, said scholar and veteran Philadelphia Chinatown activist Mary Yee, like the “Asian flu” of the 1950s and the “Hong Kong flu” of the late 1960s. And the 2003 SARS virus also brought out discrimination.
“The legacy of racism against Chinese [and] Asians in this country can rear its ugly head at moments like this,” said Tao Jiang, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It’s still very much a developing story. But we should never allow coronavirus to become a metaphor or a joke targeting a vulnerable minority group.”
On Sunday evening, Alix Webb, executive director of the pan-Asian rights group Asian Americans United, overheard neighborhood kids incorrectly saying coronavirus had been found in Philadelphia.
“I really shut it down,” Webb said. “I said, ‘This is sending out fear of the Asian community and anti-Asian bias. It’s not true.’”
Worry over the virus has gripped Chinese communities, too, and upended the most celebratory time of year for many who have canceled flights or events.
"A lot of people are not going out. … People are saying, let’s meet in our house,” said Kevin Jiang, chairman of the elder board at Trinity Christian Church of Greater Philadelphia. “People are in general asking people who have been in China not to show up in group gatherings.”
At the church, which serves the Chinese community in Havertown, attendance at the weekend’s main worship service was down almost 40%. About 145 people came to church instead of the usual 230, Jiang said, and one Sunday school class had 10 students instead of 25.
Because the outbreak coincided with the New Year — the Year of the Rat in the Chinese calendar — many church members had recently traveled to China or hosted visitors from there, he said. That’s fueled worry, and the church has asked anyone newly returned from China to stay home. Meanwhile, many are buying surgical masks and canceling flights to visit overseas friends and family, worried about “not being able to come back,” Jiang said.
“There has been quite a commotion within the Chinese community,” Jiang said. There is “a lot of conversation about, ‘If it’s somebody from China, be careful,’ that type of thing, but… I didn’t take it as malicious or racist or anything.”
Yan, the Penn sophomore, said friends in China have told her they’re worried and asked for moral support to “stay positive and encouraged” as the situation worsens. Her dad’s side of the family is from Wuhan, but he told her they were fine.
“I thought that was interesting, because they’re the ones actually in the situation,” Yan said, "whereas people here who don’t have family in China or haven’t ever been to China … they’re the ones who seem to be exhibiting the most amount of fear.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story cited a report by the Fujian Association of Greater Philadelphia of a possible attack against a commuter on a SEPTA platform. The association has since amended that report to say the incident occurred in Washington, not Philadelphia.
Staff writers Susan Snyder and Sam Wood contributed to this article.