Rise In Anti-Asian Violence Is At The Intersection Of Racism And Disease

11:55 minutes

a young asian woman holds a sign that reads end the violence against asians in a snow covered plaza with an archway in the background
New Yorkers hold a rally to end the violence towards Asians in Washington Square Park on February 20, 2021. Credit: Shutterstock

Earlier this week, eight people were killed at three Atlanta-area massage parlors. Six of the victims were Asian-American women. In 2020, reported attacks on Asian-Americans increased by 150% over those reported the previous year in some of the country’s most populous cities, according to data compiled by California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism that was provided to the Voice of America. The attacks came in the midst of a pandemic that has been falsely blamed on China by some politicians, including former President Trump.

This isn’t the first time that the Asian-American community has been the victim of racist scapegoating connected to a disease, however. Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter for FiveThirtyEight, joins Ira to discuss some of the other instances, from SARS in 2003 back to the bubonic plague in 1899.

They also discuss other coronavirus news, including an update on a debate over the safety of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine that is now taking place in the European Union, and talk about non-COVID news of the week, including the development of an artificial mouse uterus and research into water on Mars.

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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, your COVID questions answered and a look at the origin of the word “introvert.”

But first, earlier this week, eight people were murdered at three Atlanta area massage parlors. Six of the victims were Asian-American women. The attacks came in the midst of a pandemic that has been falsely blamed on China by some politicians, including former President Trump.

And those inflammatory remarks have a serious effect. In 2020 reported attacks on Asian-Americans increased by 150% over those reported the previous year in some of the country’s most populous cities, according to data compiled by California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism that was provided to The Voice of America.

This isn’t the first time that the Asian-American community has been the target of racist scapegoating connected to a disease. Here with more on that is Maggie Koerth, Senior Science Reporter for FiveThirtyEight. She’s based in Minneapolis. Always good to talk with you, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Thanks for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Give us the connection here between the pandemic and these horrible attacks.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, before these specific attacks happened, there had been this knowledge that attacks against Asians and Asian-Americans in the US was on the rise. And my colleague, Alex Samuels, at FiveThirtyEight had actually written a story, just last week, that addressed some of this. She was looking at this long history of scapegoating and racism playing a role in how this country responds to crises, including disease outbreaks.

And there’s all these examples that just go back for years and years and years. During the original SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, Asian neighborhoods in the US lost huge amounts of revenue. And that’s despite there being not a single SARS death in this country at all. If you go even further back in history, you have Asian neighborhoods that have been barricaded and even burned when the people who live there were blamed by white authorities for spreading disease.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s good evidence to make this connection?

MAGGIE KOERTH: There absolutely is. And I think that one of the really interesting things in the story is the point that Alex makes about how disease is political. You know, the virus itself doesn’t have politics. But it exists in this world where racism and bigotry spreads as easily as any pandemic.

And so you get a narrative that blames a disease on a particular racial group. And it works its way through society. And if we haven’t actively fought against it, it ends up getting normalized into the way that people are thinking. It becomes kind of part of– it’s just kind of part of that background milieu.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about other COVID-related news this week. There’s been a lot of attention in Europe about AstraZeneca’s vaccine causing blood clots. Anthony Fauci was asked about that on Thursday. Give us an idea of what’s going on here.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, so this has been a really confusing week for the status of the AstraZeneca vaccine. It’s not yet approved for use in the US. But it has been widely used across Europe and, really, the rest of the globe. I think India is another really big user.

And this week, you had more than 20 European countries that temporarily stopped using it because of these side effect concerns. So this is really complicated. And the story that I found most enlightening was one at Science that was from Gretchen Vogel and Kai Kupferschmidt. And they framed it essentially as a clash between the priorities of public health experts and the priorities of vaccine safety experts.

IRA FLATOW: So what are these safety concerns?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, it boils down to this. There have been at least 13 patients in continental Europe who have developed what is honestly a really distressing set of symptoms. It was originally reported as blood clots, which if it were just run of the mill blood clots, 13 out of tens of millions of doses wouldn’t be something you’d be concerned about. Right? It’s actually less frequent than what you’d expect to find in just a random sample of unvaccinated people.

But these weren’t ordinary blood clots. Vogel and Kupferschmidt are writing about how what we’re talking about is this widespread, full body blood clotting, internal bleeding, and low platelet counts. And seven of those 13 people have actually died.

So basically, you have the vaccine safety people looking at this and going, this is not normal. We should be a little bit concerned about what’s going on here. We don’t know what the situation is yet.

And then you have the public health people looking at the same data and going, OK. But this is still a really super small number out of tens of millions of vaccinated people.

And it’s also not consistently happening everywhere that AstraZeneca vaccine is being used. So you have some countries, like the UK, that have used lots of AstraZeneca but not had a single case of the syndrome. So they’re looking at this and thinking that COVID is still a lot more dangerous then 13 out of tens of millions of a syndrome that may or may not be linked to the vaccine.

IRA FLATOW: The EU, though, some countries have started shutting down or closing up a little bit now, haven’t they?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, some of those countries have put a temporary pause on using AstraZeneca vaccine. And the EU regulator, though, the vaccine regulator there, actually came out yesterday and effectively they sided with the public health people. So they came out and said we have looked at this.

And we have found that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not causing general, run of the mill blood clots. We can’t rule out this really rare thing. But the risks of COVID are higher. So they’re basically saying, go ahead and go back to using this. But it’ll be interesting to see what the countries actually do with that.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s not been OK’d for use here in the US, has it?

MAGGIE KOERTH: It has not yet. No. It’s not gone through that emergency use authorization process yet.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s move on to some other interesting science news this week, specifically a story about an artificial uterus.



MAGGIE KOERTH: So this is super interesting. Yeah. And I think this is kind of fulfilling the promise of pop culture, right? Because test tube babies are not really test tube babies. They’re fertilized in the lab, but it’s a long way from a test tube to a baby.

These researchers in Israel, though, they’ve just made that path a little shorter. So they’ve managed to not just fertilize mouse eggs, but grow embryos all the way through the halfway point of gestation without any mouse mothers being involved. They have this artificial womb they’ve put together.

It’s basically glass jars. They almost look like spice canisters. And they’re filled with this special nutrient fluid. And they’re loaded into this little spinning disk in an incubator.

And the incubators keep the vials warm. And they maintain proper levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The spinning disk spins slowly. It’s kind of keeping the embryos from adhering to the sides of the jars. And the result is an embryo that is basically indistinguishable from what you’d find inside of a living mouse.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. This reminds me of turning points in biology, when you talk about ethics and things like that. This sort of opens up a lot of different cans of worms here.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yes, it does. Yeah. We are definitely shopping at the worm store.

There are lots of legitimate, useful research that this kind of technique could serve. We have no real way right now to watch animals that are like us grow from cells to babies. And being able to observe that process in real time could have huge impacts for our understanding of biology, for helping scientists prevent miscarriages and birth defects.

And then there’s also the whole, like, where do we stop issue. Like right now, these artificial wombs can’t sustain embryos past that halfway point. So that’s where those mouse embryos start to need blood for nourishment. And that nutrient goo just can’t cut it.

But the technological limit’s not going to exist forever. And so we’re now kind of in this place where we have to start asking, is it OK to grow an animal entirely outside of a body? Is it OK to grow a human entirely outside of a body? We actually have these questions that we now have to start grappling with in our law, in our regulations.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You know, technology changes. Ethics have to be talked about and perhaps changed also.

Finally, we’ve all been watching the latest Mars mission and even heard some driving sounds this week. But there’s new research into the question of where the water went on Mars. This is always a problem that I’ve always wondered about. Do we have something new here?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. So for years, the lack of liquid on Mars has been blamed on its atmosphere. So there’s all this evidence that Mars once had lots of water. It does not now.

And it’s always kind of been pinned on this idea that at some point the Martian atmosphere got thinner. Because it’s now much thinner than our own. It’s less than 1% of the volume of Earth’s atmosphere.

So this idea was that, like, well, at some point the atmosphere thinned. And all of the water that had been there drifted off into space because there was nothing to trap it on the planet. But this new computer modeling that has been done suggests that a large portion of the water might have actually gotten trapped in the ground, bound into the crystalline structure of minerals. That’s something that can happen on Earth. It’s something that, if it is happening on Mars, the computer modeling is suggesting that anywhere between 30 and 99% of all of the water that was once on that planet could just be there in that chemical geological prison. And that’s– yeah.

IRA FLATOW: 30 to 99%?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Which is a heck of a spread.


IRA FLATOW: But that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. It is. Yeah. I mean, it’s basically saying there’s a lot of water, probably, down there, bound into the soil. And that can be really good for humans if we end up traveling to the red planet. It means there’s a hope of having usable water that we can extract from the planet somewhere other than the icy Martian poles.

IRA FLATOW: Before we go, I want to take a listen to some of the sounds of the Mars Perseverance Rover driving on the surface of Mars. It sounds a little bit like your squeaky old car. Have a listen.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Oh, my gosh. I’m so excited about this.


MAGGIE KOERTH: Oh, my gosh. They took the Oldsmobile I drove in high school up there. I can’t hear the sound. But I know that click and clack always identified as the brakes failing, so we’re probably fine.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I’m not sure NASA knows what all the sounds are. They were saying they knew what most of them are, but not all of them.


MAGGIE KOERTH: That sounds about right.

IRA FLATOW: Where are Click and Clack? It would be great if they were still around to talk about this car on Mars. We’re thinking of them today. Thank you, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yes. Thank you. Maggie Koerth, Senior Science Reporter for FiveThirtyEight. She’s based in Minneapolis. Always a pleasure to have Maggie.

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