Exclusive: 43% of Americans say a specific organization or people to blame for COVID-19

Susan Page and Sarah Elbeshbishi, USA TODAY
·4 min read

WASHINGTON – One in 4 Americans, including nearly half of Asian Americans, in recent weeks have seen someone blame Asian people for the coronavirus epidemic, a new USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll finds.

The nationwide survey was taken Thursday and Friday in the wake of last week's mass shooting in Georgia that killed eight people, six of them women of Asian descent. Reports across the country of physical assaults and verbal abuse against Asian Americans have jumped during the yearlong pandemic.

"My friend went to the supermarket and got bullied," said Pong Rattanakosum, 45, a health care worker from Los Angeles and an American of Thai descent who was polled. When he heard about the shooting in Georgia, "I felt, like, anger, and also anxious," he said in a follow-up interview.

Jesus Estrella, of Kennesaw, Ga., stands outside Youngs Asian Massage on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Acworth, Ga., where four people were fatally shot Tuesday.
Jesus Estrella, of Kennesaw, Ga., stands outside Youngs Asian Massage on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Acworth, Ga., where four people were fatally shot Tuesday.

While a 57% majority of Americans describe the coronavirus pandemic as a natural disaster, 43% say they believe a particular organization or people is responsible. In response to an open-ended question, most in that group specified China, comprising nearly 1 in 4 of the total survey.

The online poll of 1,195 adults has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

"China released it, so the buck has to stop there," said Joanne Von Prisk, 78, a retired customer service manager from Sun City, Arizona, who is white. "I don't know ... that it was accidental or it was intentional. It should have been contained and dealt with there."

There were sharp partisan differences in perceptions.

Partisan, racial differences

Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to hold a specific group or organization responsible for the pandemic. And Democrats were almost twice as likely as Republicans to report having witnessed Asian people being blamed for the pandemic in the past month.

Among the 25% of those surveyed who said they had seen someone blaming Asian people for the pandemic, race and ethnicity were a divide as well: 18% of white Americans, 34% of Hispanic Americans, 40% of Black Americans and 46% of Asian Americans said they had witnessed such incidents.

"A year into the coronavirus pandemic, and Americans continue to blame China for the outbreak, particularly Republicans," said Cliff Young, president of Ipsos. "With such ongoing scapegoating, it is not a surprise that 1 in 4 Americans report seeing anti-Asian harassment."

An academic study published in the American Journal of Public Health last week showed the effect of then-President Donald Trump labeling the pandemic the "Chinese virus" during its early weeks. When he first used the hashtag #chinesevirus on Twitter in March 2020, the number of people using it exploded, and they were much more likely to use explicitly anti-Asian hashtags than those who used #covid19 in tweets.

"The previous administration, you know, they would openly say 'Chinese virus,'" said Shirin Bhasin, 44, of Milwaukee, an Indian American who works in human resources. She was among those surveyed. "So they have sort of instilled in people that it's to do with China, it's to do with the Chinese people."

Reports of violence have exposed bias against Asian Americans that has long existed but not always been recognized, she said. "It has brought more awareness, and people who were just living under the rock thinking that there was no racism – some of my colleagues, their eyes have opened up."

More: Many Americans of color call for unity against white supremacy after Atlanta killings

But Bobby Colvin, 74, a mango grower from Pahokee, Florida, who is white, accuses the news media of hyping reports of attacks on Asian Americans. "I haven't seen it," he said. "I don't believe it at all."

A nonprofit group called Stop AAPI Hate reported nearly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian hate in about a year since the pandemic emerged, including verbal harassment, physical assaults and civil rights violations. "President Trump's insistence on the term 'Chinese virus' clearly stigmatized Asians as disease-carriers," founder Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, told USA TODAY. "Such words directed fear and anger towards Asian Americans and has led to the violence and deaths that we're grieving over."

Changes from April 2020 to now

In an Ipsos poll last April, one-third of those surveyed reported having seen Asians being blamed for the pandemic, 7 points higher than in the new survey.

But the change in attitudes over the past year about coming into close contact with someone of Asian descent is complicated. The number who express fear about being near someone of Asian ancestry is relatively unchanged, at 21%. But the percentage concerned about being close to an Asian American who isn't wearing a mask or other protective gear rose 8 points, to a 54% majority.

There was no such significant shift in views about being close to people in general who weren't wearing protective gear.

Stefanie Brummitt, 33, of Mechanicsville, Maryland, who is white, calls the effort to blame Asians "really ignorant," but she recognizes it is happening.

"My 9-year-old son told me he's not in school because it's China's fault and it's the Chinese people's fault," she said. "I was livid."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Poll: 1 in 4 Americans have seen Asians blamed for COVID-19