Intolerance Exposed by Coronavirus Concerns


Photo Courtesy of Zhaoyi Li

Cases of bigotry on college campuses across the nation have flooded news headlines for the past monthunfortunately, SLU was not immune to this insensitivity. 


At SLU, the growing concerns about coronavirus have fostered an atmosphere of xenophobia towards international students on campus. Instances of intolerant remarks warranted a response from SLU President Fred Pestello, P.h.D. and the increased worry and uncertainty surrounding the virus was partially to blame for the cancellation of SLU’s annual Chinese New Year Celebration on Jan. 31, 2020. 


In an email entitled “Walking in solidarity with our campus community members,” written on Feb. 5, Pestello stated that there were already reports of racist remarks to Chinese students while off-campus. He concluded the email by reminding the community that “wearing a face mask in and of itself is not a sign of sickness.”


The bigotry experienced by international students may stem from a lack of understanding of Asian cultures. For one, wearing face masks is a common cultural practice in East Asian countries. These woven-cloth surgical masks have many everyday usesto prevent inhaling airborne dust particles, pollutants and from spreading bacteria to others. U.S. Centers for Disease Control states that face masks of little use in preventing coronavirus because, “most facemasks do not effectively filter small particles from the air and do not prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales.” Although, students unfamiliar with this practice still make this fallacious connection.


While some students joke about the virus, they fail to take into consideration the tragedy at handaccording to CNN, the death count is currently over 2,000. This unfortunate number is just another reason why the Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA) ultimately decided to cancel their Chinese New Year event.


In another instance,”Barstool Billikens,” a comedic Instagram account notorious for commentating on SLU events, making light of international fears of a pandemic, posted an image of a face mask with a Billiken on it. The caption read “protect yourself from the coronavirus with school spirit.” 


The CSSA hosts the Chinese Spring Festival every year to acknowledge one of the most widely celebrated holidays in China. Numerous students, staff and faculty attend the event and attendees often include students from WashU, UMSL and SIUE. 


According to Lina Liang, the Minister of Public Relations for CSSA, the Festival aim[s] to share this part of Chinese culture with the Saint Louis University community and hope[s] it can help SLU faculties and students form a better understanding of the Chinese culture.”


Although, this year, concerns for public health and outbreaks of coronavirus in China led the CSSA to their decision to cancel the event. 


“Considering what was happening in our home country, and whose students family members are in China, we are finding celebration to be difficult at a tragic time,” Liang stated. 


This sensationalized concern for coronavirus in America, Liang states, comes from “shocking” and “overreacting” media coverage of the disease. “Influenza has a far more impacted population in U.S. The difference is that influenza is well known, but coronavirus (with flu-like symptoms) is novel,” she said. 


The CSSA will continue to fight against intolerance from their peers. In response to some of the SLU community’s assumptions about and reaction to the virus, the CSSA hopes to educate against the misconceptions about their culture that might lead to bigotry. In collaboration with INTO and SLU’s Office of International Services, they are also fundraising to help Chinese hospitals at the forefront of the fight against Coronavirus. Please consider donating here:


“Let us remember that we are a Catholic, Jesuit, international, urban, residential, research university with a mission that calls us to walk in solidarity with others,” Pestello wrote in his email to the students, faculty and staff of SLU. In such a time of this global health crisis, solidarity is essential to the success of a university-wide community.