Off Campus

COVID-19: the painful story of rise in racism

Reading time: 6 minutes

After a year in quarantines and lockdowns, the threats posed by COVID-19 seem to be affecting not only the health of the people. With the outbreak of the pandemic there has been an incredible rise in racism towards the people of Asian descent. From verbal harassment to hate crimes, these individuals are forced to live in fear on a daily basis. Find out more by reading about the experiences of Bocconi’s Asian community and all that’s been going on in Italy.

Pushed on the ground, slapped and screamed at – this is what daily life looks like for thousands of Asian community members these days. In the recent months, there have been around 4000 attacks against people of Asian descent in the United States alone. And these are only the numbers of hate crimes that have been reported. With the breakout of COVID-19 pandemic, the world has seen a radical increase in anti-Asian crimes as people have started to blame these communities for the entire outbreak and its effects, such as quarantine measures and closing of businesses. While all this sounds ridiculous, not only is the status quo not improving but the governments and public institutions seem to be ignoring the issue as a whole. Lack of action as well as insufficient amount of media reporting has led to people undermining the rise in discrimination as a whole. Given this, even the majority of us here in Bocconi are incapable of understanding what this exclusion and constant fear feels like. Well, allow me to familiarise you with it. To understand this painful result of the pandemic, I interviewed several Bocconi students of Asian descent to discuss how they have been feeling in Milan for the past few months.

In order to understand the status quo better, recognise the fact that majority of current media spotlight is focused on the United States when talking about discrimination against Asian communities. Barely ever will you find an article discussing the situation in some of the European states. When asked to discuss this during an interview, respondents had different opinions. With some saying that in their opinion there was enough coverage on the media, others disagreed. One of the interviewees noted that it is only liberal news outlets that have a wider reach to Asian communities discussing the rise of discrimination. According to her, big media giants tend to cast a blind eye and ignore the issue as not worthy of writing about. Another interviewee, Michele Y. Zheng, agreed with it too. In his own view, it’s only the countries like the US, where issues of race have been on the rise, giving enough media attention to discuss the rise in discrimination. This is surprising given the severity of the situation. In March 2021, 6 women of Asian descent were killed in Atlanta, instilling fear in the Asian-American community.[1] 5 men have gone on trial in France for harassing local Chinese communities by tweeting hateful and demeaning messages, claiming it was all to “make friends laugh”.[2] In the United Kingdom, the increase in hate crimes towards Asian communities reached 300% in 2020 alone.[3] In the light of all this, it seems like nothing’s being done apart from one or two articles being published by the liberal news outlets. And even the governments are lacking action.

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When asked to comment on the recent rise in discrimination, respondents had different opinions. While most claimed that they had not experienced harsh discrimination themselves, they recalled events that made them feel excluded or those that affected friends and family. One of the respondents recalled the time an old lady threw an umbrella at her in the tram. She also recalled how in February 2020, when she had started to wear medical masks, people in the streets would stare at her for no reason. When answering the same question, Michael noted that he sometimes has to endure stares and mean glances of those around, yet he has learnt to ignore such behaviour. He also recalled a story of a friend with Spanish-Chinese ethnic heritage. This friend of his, living in the UK, was verbally harassed on public transport and told to “get back to her country”. Michael mentioned that Milan is doing way better in tackling racism once compared to fellow smaller cities. A rather diverse resident population exposes people to individuals of different ethnicities, hence making them more open-minded and international.

It also seems that despite how diverse Italy is, the situation out here is far from perfect. Not only all of the incidences reported by the interviewees occurred here, but the rise in discrimination as a whole seems to be increasing. This hatred focused towards Asian communities seems to be appearing on two levels. Firstly, it is the rise in hate crimes and discrimination on a daily person-to-person basis. With more than 300,000 people of Chinese heritage alone living in Italy, it seems that the country is incapable of protecting them. From restaurants banning Asian clients from entering to a music school in Rome prohibiting Asian students from attending classes, this rise in racism is no longer silent.[4] Despite the fact that a government once in a while expresses its condemnation towards such behaviour, nothing is changing. It becomes even harder to track down cases that occur on a minor scale, such as verbal harassment on public transport. The second problem is the fact that discriminatory acts often occur on large media platforms, where thousands of people become exposed to inappropriate behaviour and misinformation. One of the most recent cases that caused a massive outrage was that of Striscia la Notizia (The News Crawls) scandal. In the popular Italian TV program, two hosts mocked the worldwide Asian community by making slant-eyed gestures and trying to sell it as funny.[5] Despite the fact that the people involved have issued public apologies, the message remains the same. Even in the 21st century people are incapable of seeing others as fellow human beings and use demeaning rhetoric as a way to make others laugh. It all seems to be ridiculous given the fact that e.g. Chinese communities in Italy have been the greatest example of proper isolation and effective containment measures. And yet still, people see these communities as a problem, instead of following their path.

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What’s interesting is that all of the interviewees agreed that the Italian government and the EU institutions as a whole are not doing enough to tackle the rise in racism. When asked what public institutions could do to help the people, respondents gave different answers. One said that the most important thing is having the government ensure that only the correct information is available in the media. He also noted that “prohibiting improper behavior by the media and politicians (such as demanding compensation from the Chinese government)“ is crucial. Another provided a different perspective, saying that imposition of strict policies is likely to distance people and further infuriate the ignorant part of the population. She claimed that the more important thing is making people empathic and encouraging those who are discriminated against, as currently it’s the Asian communities helping fellow Asian people. Michael also suggested a different way of looking at the discriminators. He recalled a class he once had in elementary school, where he was taught to perceive “racists as those who are just scared”, hence, they are unfamiliar with your culture. Thus, what we should be doing is getting communities closer together and allowing them to learn about others as well as their traditions.

At the end of the day, we must remember that there’s something each and every single one of us can do. When you see a person being verbally or physically harassed, when you know that something is wrong and must be changed – go out and help, stop those who choose to bully instead of learning about others and being empathic. What’s nice to hear is the fact that all of the interviewees still think that social change is possible and as a society we will eventually be able to combat the spread of hatred. Here’s one thing to take away from Bocconi students’ responses: despite the fact that our university is diverse, remember to be kind and try to help out those who struggle because it doesn’t take much.


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[1] Graham, Ruth. “Live Updates: 8 Dead in Atlanta Spa Shootings, with Fears of Anti-Asian Bias.” New York Times, 17 Mar. 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/03/17/us/shooting-atlanta-acworth.

[2] Theise, Philippe. “France’s Asian Community Fights Back against Racist Attacks during Pandemic.” France 24, 4 Apr. 2021, http://www.france24.com/en/europe/20210404-france-s-asian-community-fights-back-against-racist-attacks-during-pandemic.

[3] Matsuda, Tom. “It’s Time to Talk about Anti-Asian Racism in the UK.” Www.aljazeera.com, 1 Apr. 2021, http://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/4/1/its-time-to-talk-about-anti-asian-racism-in-the-uk.

[4] Lowen, Mark. “Coronavirus: Chinese Targeted as Italians Panic.” BBC News, 4 Feb. 2020, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51370822.

[5] South China Morning Post. “Slant-Eyed Gestures, Chinese Accent: Italian TV Sketch Launches Racism Debate.” South China Morning Post, 16 Apr. 2021, http://www.scmp.com/news/world/europe/article/3129747/slant-eyed-gestures-chinese-accent-italian-sketch-launches-racism.

Author profile
Chief Editor

Student of International Politics and Government. Key interest areas: politics, international relations, history, and social movements. Incredibly passionate about debating tournaments, analysing global developments, and investigating a variety of topics through writing.

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