Distorted ideas of race have been interwoven in Western discourses of public health for a long time, revealing preconceived notions of what disease carriers look like, which borders should be opened to whom, and, more starkly, who the outsiders of any given society are.
Indeed, the rise in anti-Asian racism during COVID-19 coincides with growing xenophobia and nativism in the United States and beyond. In many countries, including many across Asia, the virus has unveiled existing racisms, particularly when the crisis is used to justify the discriminatory treatment of certain groups.
In Malaysia, there has been an surge in online hate speech towards migrants, particularly Rohingya refugees, who are associated with being dangerous and dirty. With the perceived threat of the Rohingya presence magnified by fear and misinformation around COVID-19, citizens have called for the expulsion of refugees. There have been raids and mass arrests of undocumented migrants during Malaysia’s Movement Control Order.
In India, Muslims are scapegoated during the pandemic, as Hindu nationalists use social and mainstream media to incite further hatred against this minority community. Discriminatory treatment of Muslims, which includes turning them away from hospitals, comes months after a controversial citizenship bill sparked deadly riots and aggravated animosity between Hindus and Muslims.
According to Human Rights Watch, politicians around the world have used the COVID-19 crisis to further “anti-immigrant, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic conspiracy theories” that demonise those at the margins of society, such as foreign workers, refugees, and ethnic minorities.
Where race has been used as an organising principle to explain domestic problems with, fear and insecurity during a global health crisis have led to heightened fear of those seen as foreign. This ultimately undermines joint efforts to beat the pandemic and distracts governments from fixing the social and economic conditions that give rise to disease.
As the world grapples with containing and curing the virus, human civilisation faces the even greater task of eradicating the racism that continues to plague our societies. As Tedro Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), recently said, “Stigma is more dangerous than the [corona]virus itself”.
Will a united response against COVID-19 be the antidote?