How Xenophobia Is Emerging As A Parallel Pandemic?

by Mohammad Zubair Ud Din

The first patient who caught fever, cold and cough from Coronavirus would hardly have imagined that what looked like a normal illness could emerge into the greatest crisis since World War II. Coronavirus has spelt disaster for the world economy and put the world healthcare system under the greatest strain.

‘Rumour Monger’

However, it was Le Wenliang, a Chinese doctor, who in a group chat with other medics correctly diagnosed the outbreak of new SARS-like illness in early December for the first time. The response of the Chinese authorities was akin to their authoritarian functioning. Dr Le Wenliang was arrested a few hours later after posting about the new deadly virus for spreading rumours and was forced to sign a police document admitting that he had breached the law and “seriously disrupted social order”. This whistleblower later contracted the virus and his death in early February sparked outrage in China. The news of his death became the top trending topic on Chinese social media, garnering an estimated 1.5bn views and internet users demanded action and raised the demand for freedom of speech.

A team of experts from China and the World Health Organization visit a hospital in Wuhan, Central China’s Hubei province

Chinese authorities kept the outbreak a secret and downplayed the gravity of situation exacerbated by the severity of the virus for some time. Perhaps, it was this insensitivity initially shown by China towards the outbreak of Coronavirus that it slowly trickled into Europe, America, South Korea, Japan and other parts of the world and assumed the shape of a global pandemic. Least concern was shown towards the fact that this virus was highly contagious and as such endangers humanity. But, perhaps, China did not want a dent in her international image as an economic and political alternative to the USA.

Racist Assaults

The virus didn’t stop here. While as China, apparently, initially hid as to what had engulfed Wuhan, once the Coronavirus triggered disease named Covid-19 spread within and beyond the frontiers of China, there was an increase in the acts of prejudice, xenophobia and racism.  The people of East Asian and South-East Asian descent faced the racist attacks. The rights groups condemned a racially motivated attack in New York City on March 6, after a video footage emerged of a man spraying air freshener on an Asian-American on a train.  The most shocking comments came from Donald Trump who repeatedly referred the virus as Chinese virus eliciting a strong criticism from the critics saying that he was ‘fuelling bigotry’ and putting Asian-American communities at risk. Who knew then that New York would emerge as a new epicentre of Covid-19.

Chinese premier handing over a handmade portrait to host Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019 during his India visit.

Nature, perhaps, played a great leveller. If this was not enough two French doctors proposed that a potential vaccine for Coronavirus should first be tested on people in Africa. This racist rant sparked of a strong reaction from an Ivorian football player, Didier Drogba, who tweeted: “Africa isn’t a testing lab. I would like to vividly denounce those demeaning, false and most of all deeply racist words.”

When china observed three minutes of silence on April, 3 for all those who died of Coronavirus, one of the journalists in France made a racist remark on BEMTV, a French TV channel: “They are burying the Pokémon’s”. Even though he apologized later but the remark manifested the deeply embedded illness.

Bigotry Gets Big

While the people of Asian and African descent are mostly at the receiving end of racism in Europe and America, shockingly, even within China people from Wuhan, the initial epicentre of Coronavirus, faced discrimination from their fellow countrymen. In the same vein, customers from mainland China were turned away from a number of restaurants in Hong Kong.

Similar incidents of bigotry were and have been reported from other countries – Japan, Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Australia, and other places. China, first at the receiving end of racism because of Coronavirus has, off late, started to pay in kind as stories of discrimination against foreigners from different countries accusing them of second wave of Covid-19 have been reported.

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Infact the stories of discrimination, racism and distrust have been reported across the world. Notwithstanding the fact, the continuous pounding of Palestine by Israel, Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia and the deadly retaliation by Saudis, internecine warfare in Libya and Afghanistan and the posturing of responsible leaders and institutions as deaf and dumb towards the greatest humanitarian crisis in Syria, Rakhine (Myanmar) and Yemen continues to bewilder the human consciousness. And spare a thought about the Sikhs of Afghanistan who were killed in a dastardly terrorist attack in their Gurudwara on March 25, 2020. Even their funeral prayers were not spared. A tragic interplay of fate indeed.

The Scene In India

Here in India, too, there were many reports of racism. People from North Eastern states and Chinese origin people in Kolkata were subject to racist slurs and discrimination. However, the greatest witch-hunt, with dangerous consequences for the fragile communal harmony in India, over the last three weeks has been against the Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary Islamic organisation.

They are being denounced with worst of the adjectives for being ”solely responsible” for bringing and spreading Covid-19 in India as part of a “larger conspiracy”. It is true that the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi from March 13 to 15, was an indefensible act given the fact that the government directives on social distancing were ignored. More importantly, the gathering ultimately proved the timing was wrong as hundreds of Covid-19 positive cases have since surfaced with direct or indirect links to this particular religious gathering.

However, the manner in which hate is freely peddled on social media and a large section of electronic media reflects the larger disease embedded and afflicting the republic of India. Corona Jihad trended on Twitter and primetime shows of the news channels. All this is being done in a surcharged polarised atmosphere after the incumbent government passed the controversial anti-citizenship law. No sensitivity is being shown given the fact that hardly a month has passed since deadly Delhi riots consumed dozens of lives and brought a bad image to India in internationally.

No Lessons Learnt

To be very precise, every country, especially the developed countries, are facing the brunt and watching helplessly the fury of Covid-19. However, if the intention of Covid-19 was to bring home a lesson before the world leaders to assume a responsible role in striking out a balance between nature and human mankind’s demands, ensure food and economic security net for those who are living at the margins of society, make sincere efforts to sort out the conflicts which endanger world peace with fairness and justice and make efforts for greater cooperation between member nations,  then I am afraid the Covid -19 has miserably failed. We continue to run and act in consonance with our preconceived notions, biases and prejudices.

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One wonders if a global pandemic like Covid-19 cannot bring the world closer together and abolish the boundaries of race, colour, region, ethnicity and language, what else it could be.  The pandemic has derailed the economy of the world with tens of millions facing the inevitable spectre of unemployment.

Worst Recession

The IMF has already indicated that the world faces a recession far worse than the global financial crisis a decade ago.  There are calls against globalization to prevent such pandemics. However, there have been epidemics in medieval times as well like Black Death, which travelled from one part of the globe to another killing people between 75 million and 200 million despite the absence of modern means of transportation. The solution to prevent such pandemics lies in simple but effective doctrine – mutual trust, global solidarity and cooperation.

Mohammad Zubair Ud Din

Reliable scientific information should be shared and acted upon without any delay. The current efforts by a number of countries to develop a vaccine for Coronavirus must be collaborative. It is time for China and USA to shun their egos and assume the leadership in the present crisis entailing a huge cost for world health and economy. It is time to work in unison and develop a greater trust for each other. America can set an example and show the way forward by lifting crippling sanctions on Iran in these apocalyptic times. The parties to the various conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Palestine and elsewhere should go for an unconditional ceasefire to give breathing space to the common people. The current crisis posed by Covid-19, though catastrophic, also offers an opportunity. The opportunity of bidding a farewell to xenophobia, racism, mistrust, discrimination, injustice and isolationism and taking a giant leap towards greater global cooperation based on trust, fairness and justice. That will be the true victory over the Covid-19.

(Author is an Assistant Professor (History) with Jammu and Kashmir’s HIghier Education Department. Ideas are personal.)

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