Don’t Panic: Politicians and Community Urge Locals Not to Give into Fear of Coronavirus

BENSONHURST — NYC Council Member Mark Treyger, other elected officials, a representative from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and numerous Chinese community leaders convened a press conference on February 6, to condemn recent reports of xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans in the face of fears about coronavirus.

The event sought to allay fears and combat misinformation about the novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, that originated in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province in late 2019. Although both the CDC and the New York City Department of Health have assured the public that the risk to New Yorkers is minimal (there have yet to be any confirmed cases in the city), incidents of discrimination against Chinese Americans due to fears about the coronavirus have been reported in recent days. 

Councilmember Treyger, who represents District 47 (including Bensonhurst and other parts of southern Brooklyn) opened the conference by noting recent reports of racism against Chinese American students in public schools and a viral video showing a woman wearing a face mask being assaulted and called “diseased” by a man while she was exiting the subway station in Manhattan Chinatown.

“No student or staff member in our schools should be subjected to bigotry or bullying because of who they are,” he said.

“This is the time of year that we’re actually celebrating everything wonderful about the Asian American community, and this is a time of year to not only celebrate Lunar New Year but also to recognize all the amazing, wonderful contributions Asian Americans have made to our city and our country,” he added, saying that “hearing stories of people being attacked” and of bullying over people’s identity is antithetical to the current season. 

Warning of the potential impact on Asian-owned businesses should community members avoid these establishments due to unfounded fears, Treyger added, “We’ve also received reports that because of the paranoia and because of the fear, there are people who are even afraid to shop along Asian-American small business corridors. That’s hurting small Asian-American businesses, and that’s really unacceptable. There’s a famous quote in American history, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’”

Council Members Mark Treyger and Justin Brannan Join with Community Leaders to Denounce Xenophobia and Assuage Fears Regarding the Corona Virus. Photo by John McCarten, courtesy of New York City Council.

All of the speakers at the event urged unity, rather than division, as New Yorkers — Asian and non-Asian alike — seek to keep themselves healthy in the winter months. State Senator Andrew Gounardes, who represents District 22 (encompassing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Gravesend, Gerritsen Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Marine Park in Southern Brooklyn), emphasized the importance of a zero-tolerance policy with regard to expressions of racism and xenophobia. 

“We will not tolerate, we will not accept, we will not stand silent, while fears of health concerns are used as a pretext for racism, for xenophobia, for attacking people on our streets, for resorting to ugly stereotypes. We will not sit idly by while people use this situation as an excuse to manifest the hatred that’s already in their hearts,” said Gounardes. “I stand with the thousands of people in this community, in southern Brooklyn, who can’t travel safely without the fear of being attacked and assaulted.”

Speakers also urged faith in the health care system and the exercise of basic hygiene practices. 

“We have faith, we have trust, and we have confidence in our healthcare professionals,” Treyger said. “I believe in New York’s healthcare industry, our doctors and our professionals… So let’s have some faith in our healthcare system in New York as well.”

Basic hygiene and flu season prevention tactics, such as frequent handwashing and coughing into one’s sleeve to avoid spreading germs in the air, were emphasized by all speakers. Rosita Chen of the Brooklyn Community Improvement Association also urged those attending dinners and banquets to “please use the serving spoon for your health” and avoid sharing germs between meal attendees.

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Deputy Commissioner for Disease Control Dr. Demetre Daskalakis emphasized that no coronavirus cases have been confirmed in New York City thus far and encouraged people to get the flu vaccine. He also provided some useful guidelines for determining whether to seek medical care.

Dr. Jianlin Wu, Council Members Mark Treyger and Justin Brannan Join with Community Leaders to Denounce Xenophobia and Assuage Fears Regarding the Corona Virus. Photo by John McCarten, courtesy of New York City Council.

“It’s important to note that people who aren’t feeling very well, and who have recently traveled to Hubei Province, China, or have had contact with someone who’s been in China, have a very low threshold for seeking medical care. If you’re seeking medical care, call ahead and don’t take public transportation [to seek care].”

 With regard to warnings against participating in large public gatherings that have circulated on all manner of social media platforms, all the speakers urged citizens to continue their usual day-to-day activities.

“We are still planning to do the Lion Dance in Chinatown on Saturday and have a big parade in Chinatown on Sunday, so we’re not afraid of this virus,” Ansen Tang from the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn said. “We want to send a good message to our community members to not be afraid.”

“Don’t let people scare you and say ‘Don’t go to public events.’ I know people are saying that, but there are no confirmed cases, so don’t be afraid,” District Leader Nancy Tong added. “There is going to be another parade on Sunday the ninth, so do attend.”

Multiple speakers also noted that wearing masks—an oft-used precaution against coronavirus transmission in China—isn’t necessary at the moment. Dr. Jianlin Wu, a local doctor, said, “I don’t encourage everybody to wear the mask. I encourage everybody who really does get sick to please call your doctor and wear your mask when you go to the doctor, when you go to the emergency room, and make sure whoever transports you to the doctor’s office or hospital gets some kind of protection.”

Treyger urged New Yorkers to look out for each other, not panic and guard against the threat of misinformation. 

Audience members. Photo by John McCarten, courtesy of New York City Council.

“The virus of misinformation is worse than the coronavirus,” he warned. “Understand that basic hygiene applies here. Stuff that we learned in school. Basic hygienic practices apply. Based on everything that I’ve read, the flu is more deadly. So apply basic common sense that we’ve learned throughout the course of our lives.”

In his remarks, Councilman Justin Brennan emphasized the importance of obtaining reliable information and making informed decisions with it, rather than misinformation that may be spread through social media or other, less reliable sources.

“I think the message here is very, very clear today. There is no reason to panic,” he said. “The one thing that’s more dangerous than the spread of germs is the spread of misinformation or disinformation,” which he observed might be used to spread “hatefulness or xenophobia.”

To close out the rally, Council Member Treyger reminded everyone to have compassion for the city’s Chinese American residents, many of whom have family and friends in China whom they’re anxious about. 

“I want to reiterate that there’s already anxiety in the Asian American community about the virus. So it’s unacceptable for any of our neighbors to turn on each other and spread hate and misinformation. We will call it out in our schools and neighborhoods. Please continue to go about your daily lives. Go to the Lunar New Year parade.”

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