This past school year, YuYu Yuan delivered the same speech dozens of times for virtual speech and debate tournaments. Standing in front of her laptop, she smiled, gestured, and joked. But her underlying message was dead serious: Stop blaming me for Covid-19.
Originally from China, YuYu moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, as a young child. “Through elementary and middle school, I never really saw another face like mine,” she recalls. She felt even more isolated during the pandemic, when she was afraid to even run errands for fear of being harassed.
YuYu used her speeches to educate about disease stigma—when a group of people is incorrectly blamed for an illness and avoided or harassed because of it. She told audiences how disease stigma has occurred multiple times in history, including today, when people associate Covid-19 with people of Asian descent. “Instead of targeting the disease, we have chosen to target the people,” she told listeners.
YuYu won multiple awards for her speech. But the teen’s primary goal was to help people understand—and reject—disease stigma. Be careful with the words you use to describe diseases, share only factual information, and speak up if you hear people do otherwise, she advises.
“If we just stand by and let racism happen, then it creates this kind of snowball effect,” YuYu warns. “We are made up of multiple races. We should be promoting inclusion.”