Racism further challenges social fabric amid COVID-19
Racism further challenges social fabric amid COVID-19
Though many of us are now inward looking, concerned about the health and finances of ourselves and our loved ones and how we are going to survive months in lock down, this focus too will pass and many may end up looking for a scapegoat
From the moment the threat of COVID-19 hit Australia it was, at least in part, a racial issue. By February, when there were fewer than 20 cases of the disease in the country, people of Asian appearance were reporting racist attacks. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne reported that parents had expressed concerns about their children being treated by doctors of Asian appearance, another hospital reported having patients in the waiting room avoiding other patients that looked Asian.
That same month, Chinese restaurants were also suffering, with several reportedly closing due to a lack of patronage. According to ABC News, February also saw the highest monthly number of racial discrimination complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission for this financial year, and a third of those complaints were COVID-19 related. In the US, Donald Trump repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” and in Australia, Pauline Hanson said that “China must be called out and any attempts to attack or criticise people for referring to COVID-19 as a ‘Chinese virus’ should be pushed back on.”
Sadly, Sinophobia has a long history in Australia. In the late 1800s, after an influx of Chinese immigrants arrived as part of the gold rush, they were depicted by the media as, among other things, bringing immorality, disease, corruption, and the threat of cheap labour. Stories we are still hearing today.
But as the number of COVID-19 cases in Australia, and across the world, continues to rise, and restrictions to human movement become more stringent, attention to this racial aspect of the crisis seems to have fallen away, with people, and the media, more interested in the numbers of infections and deaths, quarantining restrictions and how we’re adapting to this new way of living.
Though many of us are now inward looking, concerned about the health and finances of ourselves and our loved ones and how we are going to survive months in lock down, this focus too will pass and many may end up looking for a scapegoat. Even if a vaccine is developed for COVID-19 and life returns to relative normalcy, the economic impacts will no doubt linger. And it is likely that the origination of the disease in China will not be forgotten, and the incidents of racism that have already been occurring around the world may indeed worsen.
“Losing one’s livelihood represents a loss of dignity and we know that violent extremist groups exploit people with a real or perceived lack of prospects”.
Dr Matteo Vergani, a senior research fellow at ADI, believes that although many people and communities are harnessing solidarity to get through the crisis, as focuses shifts, so too may such sentiments. “I am speculating,” Dr Vergani said, “but I think that the pandemic and its response is likely to trigger nationalist sentiments. They could be expressed in terms of national solidarity, but also in terms of nationalistic exclusivism. It will probably vary in different contexts and social groups. For example, in Italy, right-wing parties and electorates are blaming the EU for not helping Italy with health and economic measures. I would not be surprised if this sentiment turns into a toxic nationalism that reinforces hate towards migrants.”
In a recent article for Open Democracy, ADI’s Dr Vivian Gerrand describes the current situation as being perfect for “far right influencers and organisations [for whom] the coronavirus pandemic represents an environment that is conducive to their longed-for demise of democratic society. The large increase in numbers of jobless people who are housebound and online, constitutes a new potential demographic for recruitment. Losing one’s livelihood represents a loss of dignity and we know that violent extremist groups exploit people with a real or perceived lack of prospects. Indeed, terrorists often succeed in radicalising people through narratives of restored agency and purpose.”
Dr Vergani agrees that crisis can lead to increased hate incidents, as those suffering most look for someone to blame. “In all emergencies, the first response is solidarity, but in the long term solidarity gets replaced by fatigue, irritation and conflict. The pandemic is increasing average levels of anxiety in the population, and it’s forcing people to stay home. When people are anxious and in front of the computer, they are hungry for information and they look for certainty to regulate their anxiety.”
As Dr Gerrand writes in Open Democracy, with most of our access to the outside world filtered through the internet, we are set to get stuck in a media bubble, with algorithms dictating the news we see based on the news we’ve already chosen to see.
Moreover, Dr Vergani says, “there is no official, responsible source to provide certainty or easy answers to the questions that people have in their heads, such as: ‘how long will the pandemic last?’ or ‘what will happen to the world when the pandemic ends?’ This potentially makes all of us more vulnerable to misinformation and conspiracy theories that provide simplistic answers to complex problems.”
“A few weeks later, babies crying at night were among the most common triggers of fights and disputes.”
It is likely that China, the Chinese diaspora, and indeed any people of Asian appearance will continue to bear the brunt of COVID-19-related hate incidents but there are likely to be other victims too. Governments will no doubt be blamed, and we have already seen unlikely victims, with nurses being abused in the street, accused of spreading the disease. Across the world, including in Australia, people are coming together to applaud the healthcare workers who are still going to work, putting themselves and loved ones at risk. But despite these displays of support, a small number of frustrated people are obviously looking anywhere to vent their frustration.
This is frequent in times of crisis, “I can tell you a personal anecdote about this,” Dr Vergani said, “After the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy, I volunteered in the tented camps where over 40,000 people made homeless by the earthquake found refuge. In the first days after the earthquake, a baby crying in a tent at night was a joy for everyone. It was the symbol of life recovering from the tragedy. A few weeks later, babies crying at night were among the most common triggers of fights and disputes.”
Right now, we are just at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, and the long-term health, economic and social impacts remain to be seen. As Dr Vergani reminds us, “Only with time, and systematic data collection, will we be able to tell if baseline levels of hate crime towards people of Asian appearance have increased during and after the pandemic. I think this will largely depend on how media, political leaders and hate groups tell the narrative of the pandemic, and whether they will frame China as a scapegoat and a culprit for the health and economic emergencies that are hitting the world.”
Looking to partner with Australia's leading social sciences and humanities research institute?
If you are interested in partnering or studying with us – we're keen to hear from you.