Viral Fear: The Outsized Impacts of COVID-19 on Manhattan Chinatown’s Sze Yup Cantonese Elderly
Swarthmore College. Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology
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COVID-19, a severe acute respiratory syndrome that emerged in Wuhan, China in 2019, remains a pressing global health concern. And all the while, as insecurities, angst, and grief about the ongoing coronavirus mount worldwide, so too have crimes against peoples of Chinese and other Asian descent. Viral Fear: The Outsized Impacts of COVID-19 on Manhattan Chinatown's Sze Yup Cantonese Elderly contextualizes the hate epidemic amidst the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of (what I call) a landscape of fear. This study works to disaggregate pandemic data, and illuminates the impacts of this fear on the lived experiences of a Sze Yup Cantonese elderly population residing in New York City’s Chinatown – one of the largest yet equally underserved, invisible migrant communities in America. Through tracing historical understandings of race in America, synthesizing semi-structured interviews, engaging with online discourse analysis, and reflecting on social theory, this thesis argues that society understands disease not simply as biology, but a manifestation of political affiliation, (dis)connection, and difference on material bodies; social determinants of contagion begin with viral fear that proliferates through violence (physical, structural, mental). Throughout history and especially during the pandemic, Manhattan’s Chinatown has transformed from an immigrant safe haven into a landscape of fear. Scapegoated and vilified in the media on the false pretenses that they are to blame, multiple layers of harm against Asians living in Manhattan (and America, more broadly) emerge: the contagion itself, the racism, and the fear. Fear is then transmitted by word of mouth, by videos on the media, and through experience. The landscape of fear grows and expands across Chinatowns, nationally: a collective, communal fear. All these forces, working in parallel, have restricted elderlies’ access to healthcare, fresh produce and food, and connection – pointing to new areas of concern that must be addressed to ameliorate viral fear and its impacts.