This post is written by Amritesh Panda, student of Symbiosis Law School Pune
In this unprecedented times as the number of COVID-19 cases has surpassed 4 million worldwide and various governments around the globe are grappling with the question, about how to end the lockdown and open up their economies, there is something spreading faster than the deadly virus, the spread of xenophobia, scapegoating and communal hate.
Covid-19 is not the first global pandemic. However, faster modes of transport and greater intermingling mean that the contagion has spread in no time at all and its effects are being felt across the world. Modern technology has made it possible to bring news and warnings to our screens, tablets, and handsets. What is interesting is that despite the rapid flow of information, humanity has still not been able to forge a common front for the fight against the pandemic. In fact, technology’s darker side is that it has become a source of spreading hate and xenophobic views.
Why the rise of hate and xenophobia is not a new phenomenon?
Although the cause of pandemics and their effects may be different, history shows that demonization of certain minority groups is an all too familiar scenario when a nation struggles with a viral pandemic. A natural human response to a pandemic is fear, which frequently results in blaming individuals who are deemed, outsiders
History is full of examples where the minority groups, in general, have been specifically targeted and became an easy target of scapegoating. When the great plague of the 14th century ravaged Europe, Jews, who were already considered outsiders by the Christian majority, became an easy target. When the Christian population found that members of the Jewish community were dying in fewer numbers from the plague than Christians, many Christians believed that the Jews were deliberately spreading the disease by poisoning wells and rivers. There was a massive number of recorded cases of torture and death among the Jewish population at the hands of majority Christians.
The Americans are also not immune to this kind of fear and racial denigration. Throughout U.S. history, pandemics and epidemics have bred misinformation, hysteria, and scapegoating, ultimately leading to a surge in racial and ethical discrimination. In 2003, businesses turned away Asian American customers and customers boycotted Asian American businesses after media outlets began associating the SARS virus outbreak with people of Asian descent.
Cases of hate crimes and xenophobic attacks amid COVID-19
Most global strategists agree that the coronavirus has so far posed two major challenges for the world; the first challenge is linked to the projected economic recession, and the other entails hate and hate speech.
The economic challenge is quite critical and has already caused a reduction in production and the loss of millions of jobs across the world. As projected by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the global economy could shrink by up to one percent in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic
While economies will recover sooner or later, the spread of hate can be prolonged for years, especially in societies that are already witnessing hyper-nationalism, extremism, and communal hate. The challenge can become complex for weak economies because hate thrives on crises, conflicts, disasters and pandemics.
This rise is hatredness and animosity among people can be felt around the globe, several media outlets have reported on harassment of Asians and people of Asian origin. But these attacks are not limited to the Asian population in European or continental American nations. There are a series of hate crimes cases across Asia and Africa.
- In Israel, an Indian immigrant and member of Israel’s Bnei Menashe community was hospitalized after being beaten by two men who believed him to be Chinese.
- In Thailand, police instructed a restaurant owner in a famous tourist area to remove a sign that denied service to Chinese people, but suggested instead that they replace it with one written in Chinese that read “we ran out of food”.
- The mistreatment of Africans living in the Chinese city of Guangzhou has brought the diplomatic wrath from many African nation-states, forcing Chinese government officials to censor and crackdown on those who spread hate and racial discrimination.
Where does India stand in this situation?
Unfortunately, India doesn’t stand out in this situation. Migrants and refugees have been vilified as a source of the virus — and then denied access to medical treatment. The “contemptible memes” that have emerged suggesting that older persons, among the most vulnerable, are also the most expendable. Journalists, whistleblowers, health professionals, aid workers, and human rights defenders are being targeted simply for doing their jobs.
There were reports that people originally from northeastern states have been facing racially motivated attacks in cities around the country. They are being blamed for bringing COVID-19 to India due to their appearance. Facial features of people from northeastern India can look similar to a Han Chinese appearance. Victims of attacks say looking Chinese has caused them to be physically attacked, and abused on social media.
Some of these people have been forcibly quarantined, despite showing no COVID-19 symptoms, because of their appearance. There are reports that apartment owners in major Indian cities have even tried to evict them during the ongoing lockdown in the country.
The “minorities in India” have also witnessed similar situations of abuse and hate attacks. The social media vigilantes have increased the rhetoric and created an atmosphere of hate and distrust between communities hampering the much-needed cooperation and interfaith harmony which is extremely crucial in these times of crisis.
Though there were call for unity from the government, various organizations and the Prime minister himself but the response to such an act of hate and vilification and unequivocal condemnation is missing.
How can this climate of hate be better managed?
The secretary-general of UN Antonio Guterres early warned about this “tsunami of hate” and has provided some words of wisdom calling on political leaders to show solidarity with all people, on educational institutions to focus on “digital literacy” at a time when “extremists are seeking to prey on captive and potentially despairing audiences.”
He called on the media, especially social media, to “remove racist, misogynist, and other harmful content,” on civil society to strengthen their outreach to vulnerable people, and on religious figures to serve as “models of mutual respect.”
The secretary-general stressed that COVID-19 “does not care who we are, where we live, what we believe or about any other distinction.”
His global appeal to address and counter COVID-19-related hate speech follows his April 23 message calling the coronavirus pandemic “a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.” The pandemic has seen disproportionate effects on certain communities, the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy-handed security responses undermining the health response.” With “rising ethnonationalism, populism, authoritarianism and a push back against human rights in some countries, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic,”.
Coronavirus is a threat to every human being, we must work together to halt transmission and protect the most vulnerable among us. Stigmatization is cruel and counterproductive. Prejudice and hate are not innate. They are learned behaviors and they can be unlearned.
This ominous times demands a collective action from the society, hate crimes, belligerent rhetoric, and xenophobic vilification will act as a downward pressure, forcing everyone to sink ever deep into the sea of crisis. To remedy this situation the civil society and especially the younger generation (who are ever active in social media and in reality) instead of showing a callous approach, we should fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.