Lately, I have been consumed with news about COVID-19, otherwise known as the coronavirus. Whether it’s online or in person, conversations with others always involve some percept of the coronavirus — How do we protect ourselves? Should we be scared? How worried should I be? What if we die?
Though most of my peers and workmates have been discussing fears and anxieties about contracting the coronavirus unknowingly while riding the subway or by being in crowded spaces, I have been mostly concerned about the rise in xenophobia and violence against individuals that appear Asian. For me, the question of ‘What if we die?’ isn’t a question of death by coronavirus, but rather, death by hate and prejudice.
My subway commutes to work and school have been approximately 30 minutes, but these days it feels a little longer. My head is filled with thoughts about how I should respond if someone engages in verbal aggression and what I should do if there is physical aggression. Will I become another Asian in a viral video about racism and the coronavirus? My eyes automatically drift towards the other Asian folk on the train — especially the elderly grandmas and grandpas. I prepare myself for situations involving them as well. I’m prepared to stand up in solidarity if anyone is unfairly aggressed on the train as much as I’m prepared to protect myself. This leaves me feeling drained and emotionally tired after spending so much energy being hypervigilant walking around in a city I’ve lived and felt safe in for the past few months.
One may wonder, why is this happening? There isn’t science to prove that the coronavirus is carried specifically by Asians, or that you can only contract it from Asians. But why is there this upsurge in hate?
Terror management theory (TMT) explains this phenomenon. Simply put, TMT is a form of human thinking and behavior that stems from an awareness and fear of death. Basically, the more afraid and anxious someone is about dying, the more strong their beliefs and associated behaviors get. This is all ultimately linked to self-esteem in that the anxiety-ridden individual wants to perceive themselves as someone of value (i.e. I don’t want to die as a nobody that no one will remember) so the individual may engage in behavior that they have not before because of this heightened death anxiety.
In the context of our current situation, individuals’ beliefs about race are enhanced, causing what might’ve been previously a microaggression to turn into macroaggression and straight up violence. A person might unconsciously think that by condemning and targeting Asians (the perceived source of the virus), they have left an impact and did their part in saving the world. So then when we’re all infected and we all die, then they will be known as a hero for doing their part.
Though this example may be more exaggerated, it definitely points to the individual’s desire for symbolic immortality — that is, when I die, I want to be remembered for something. TMT states that the desire for symbolic immortality is increased with heightened awareness of death because if you think you’re more close to death, you might feel anxious that you don’t have much time to leave an impact on the world, and so you might want to do something now to be remembered before we all die and become forgotten.
Even after examining the violence and xenophobic acts through the lens of psychological theory, it is difficult to understand why people are engaging in violence. Though I can’t explain the motivations of specific individuals, I can speak for myself: I’m scared. I’m not scared of getting the coronavirus, but I am scared of my community being targeted and aggressed. I can message my friends and family “Be careful out there” every time a video of violence is shared but I sure don’t want to see any familiar faces in viral videos.
We are currently living in a society full of fear that is constantly perpetuating more fear. My writing of this post was a way for me to cope with that fear, and I hope that those of you reading are able to find ways to confide in your family, friends, and communities to cope with your fears and anxieties — regardless of the source of your fears and anxieties. We all have our own ways of coping, whether it’s through talking with others, writing letters to loved ones and our will in case of unexpected circumstances, or writing a blog post. It’s easy to wonder to ourselves, “What if we die?” but I’d say the most important thing we need now is compassion for ourselves and each other, and proper hand washing and hygiene.