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Local Asian Americans on alert due to coronavirus origins

People of Asian descent say they are on alert these days because some blame them for the coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China.

Over the past few weeks, community members in southeastern Connecticut told The Day an Asian couple was ridiculed at a casino blackjack table in the early days of the outbreak. A Norwich teen, who declined to be identified because she and her family were frightened, described being taunted after she sneezed. A woman who has lived in the United States for decades was refused service at a store. She, too, declined to speak publicly.

People of Asian descent represented 4.4% of the population in New London County in 2019 and 4.9% of the population statewide, according to the U.S. census.

"I and my closest friends and family members have not experienced this kind of discrimination from anyone, which is good," Kevin Saythany, a member of the Norwich Board of Education who is of Laotian descent, said during a phone interview Monday. "But the news (of incidents) spread like wildfire, even faster than the virus itself. I have had my sister ask me about it, if I had any people name-calling me or spitting on my face."

None of that has happened, but Saythany, who worked as a table games dealer at Mohegan Sun for five years before becoming a life skills instructor for The ARC of Eastern Connecticut, said a former Mohegan Sun co-worker told him an Asian couple playing blackjack was targeted with racial slurs.

The region's Asian population is centered in Norwich. Police Chief Patrick J. Daley said the department has not heard of any incidents, but sometimes has struggled to get information from the Asian community.

"Unfortunately, it's a very tight-knit, closed population," Daley said. "We worry. If they don't feel comfortable talking to us in good times, what's going to happen when times are bad?"

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, who is Asian American, said his office has received reports of race-based incidents.

"Somebody in my neck of the woods in southwestern Connecticut allegedly of Chinese descent was in a supermarket and somebody sprayed Lysol on her and started cursing at her," Tong said during a phone interview last week. "This unfortunately is not new, and is not limited to Asian Pacific Americans. After 9/11, people were shot and killed because people thought they were Muslim."

Tong said his office has received complaints of cyberbullying against people of Asian descent and of people who stopped patronizing Chinese restaurants because they think those venues are more infectious.

"That's hurtful, and it's wrong," said Tong, noting that in 2017 the state shored up its laws against hate crimes.

He said that those who insist on calling the coronavirus the Chinese Virus or Wuhan Virus aren't helping. He said Americans know that hate and discrimination and scapegoating is never OK.

"No virus discriminates based on race or ethnicity, where you come from or who you worship," Tong said. "Go walking into a hospital in southeastern Connecticut. You'll see a very diverse group of health care workers: doctors, nurses, administrative and support staff, African Americans, many Latinos, Asian Americans. These are people working on the front lines of this. Go into a police department or fire department, too, and you will see diversity, too."

Tong said people need each other and are depending on one another, and it's about life and death.

Racial shaming and blaming is not exclusive to any area or country. Wall Street Journal reporter Julie Wernau, who was expelled from China last month after covering the coronavirus outbreak from Beijing, said at first there were discriminatory practices against people from Wuhan.

"Right now in China there's a fear of foreigners, because this virus has gotten so much better and they're afraid of the rest of the world infecting China," she said.

Upon arriving back in Connecticut, Wernau said she heard of people being targeted because they had New York license plates. Soon it might be anyone from Connecticut or the East Coast, she said. But the threat, she said, is the virus, not a particular culture, person, province or state.

"You need to learn how to live your life and protect yourself and follow the best practices, and that's really the only way to stop the spread of the virus," she said.

Saythany said divisiveness won't help anybody during the pandemic.

"We have to focus on mitigation, and it's the responsibility of the citizens to limit the damage," he said. "The question is whether they will. That's the frightening part. Will they step up to the plate to care for their fellow citizens, someone they don't know?"

k.florin@theday.com

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