POV: Last month, I boarded a return flight from Miami to San Francisco. When I got to my seat, I noticed the couple next to me was wearing face masks.
This was around two weeks after the first public reports of the coronavirus outbreak, so I didn’t think much of it. I assumed they were simply taking precautions to avoid getting sick. Then, just five minutes into the flight, I took a gulp of water. It went down the wrong pipe, and I coughed several times. In that moment, I could feel the man in the mask staring at me. His face was mostly covered, but I could see his lingering glare. Then I realized: He probably thought I was carrying the coronavirus.
I noticed then that I was the only Asian person seated in our section of the plane. Maybe this man wrongly assumed I was from China, which at the time was at the epicenter of the outbreak. Maybe he was worried that I risked spreading the virus. With all these questions swirling in my head, as his stare made me feel increasingly uncomfortable, I saw that the row next to mine was nearly empty; I moved to a different seat. Only then did the man finally stop staring at me.
I still think about that occasion, especially as the coronavirus continues to spread across the globe with no signs of stopping. It is hitting the global economy hard as companies halt operations in China and the travel industry limps along with flight cancellations and depressed tourism. While I am concerned to see how it’s spreading, the virus offers a humbling reminder of how interconnected humans are across the globe and what we must do to overcome the prejudice that’s driven by fear.
It is fascinating to see how our unconscious bias kicks in and activates so quickly in dire situations like this. My experience on the plane isn’t so unique. A few of my Asian friends who live in Europe say they’ve been getting uncomfortable looks from people on the street, too. There’s a distinct and unfortunate anti-Chinese sentiment coming from other Asians who blame Chinese people for the outbreak.
Fundamentally, this is how our brain works. Humans have an emotional fight, flight, or freeze reaction to their surroundings. In this case, the fear of coronavirus is making people “fight,” which enables an unconscious bias against a certain group of people, like Asians or Chinese.
We can experience this situation better by remembering our common humanity and the simple truth of interconnectedness.
Social psychologists have coined the term “infrahumanization” to describe how certain subsections of people believe their ingroup is more human than an outgroup. While it’s less extreme than “dehumanization,” which deprives people of their humanity, infrahumanization is more dangerous in breadth in our life because it’s so subtle. Infrahumanization, in this case, would be casually racist assumptions that since the coronavirus outbreak originated in China, then all Chinese people should be blamed or that they must be worse than us in adhering to proper hygiene.It’s true that the virus outbreak started in China and the Chinese government is responsible for not taking it seriously in the beginning. However, that doesn’t justify blaming all Chinese people or Asians for that.
As it has spread to up to 90,000 people in 35 countries, the coronavirus also has shown how interconnected we all are in every possible way. We cannot live alone, and we cannot deny the impact we have on each other, no matter how far or near we live. We’re living a hyper-connected life. If a country is really serious about protecting its people, it needs to consider doing something good for everyone on Earth. In other words, “country” or “nationality” is just a concept that we created for the sake of convenience and formality — we’re all humans, connected to each other.
Thinking back about what happened to me on that flight from Miami to San Francisco, I can now feel the fear of that man behind the mask more than the implied racism I felt briefly at the moment. He was just being human, worried about his health and safety. It’s uncertain how long this virus will be around or when we’ll come up with better solutions. Yet we can experience this situation better by learning these simple lessons: remembering our shared common humanity and the simple truth of interconnectedness. I hope we all could see this innate humanness in each other and stop infrahumanizing the outgroup, controlled by the unconscious bias. I hope we all could become more compassionate toward one another, knowing how interconnected we all are. I hope we all could convert from conflict to connection.