Covid-19 and Racism


By Angelo Balagtas, GLOBUS Correspondent 

The one thing coronavirus has proven: pandemics lead to a rise in detrimental, often selfish acts of behaviour, as fear begins to take hold. One such example is the host of racially charged attacks around the world, as the virus has been purportedly traced to one source: The Chinese. However, one begins to wonder whether the rise in racism was a direct effect of the said pandemic or whether it was merely looking for space to be expressed.

As we are often reminded, sustainability can only be achieved when the 3 main aspects – environmental, economic and social – are properly considered and appreciated. Yet the social aspect is often being ignored or overlooked.

On the one hand, SDG 10 Target 2 directly states that by 2030, we need to “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status”. Note that race forms a significant aspect of inequality – one that impacts and perpetuates the various other inequalities that exist. On the other hand, we tend to overlook instances of racist behaviour right at our doorstep…

In the past few months, there has been a marked increase in racially motivated violence, often related to a sinophobic sentiment. On Feb 24, a Singaporean Chinese Student was subjected to a racist attack in London, brought about by the recent Coronavirus pandemic entering the British sphere. In America, the dubbing of Covid-19 as the “Chinese Virus” has led to fearmongering against Asian-Americans; the fact that this is a cause of fear among those who aren’t Chinese is another article altogether. In India, cases of racial violence are caused by simply “looking” Chinese.

On the surface level, it would seem as if these responses were just knee-jerk reactions. But on further inspection, we might notice some deeply-rooted prejudiced sentiments held by the perpetrators. According to Mr Mok (the victim of the London attack), one of the aggravators said “coronavirus” as he walked past them, to which he turned and then a slew of verbal threats and punches followed. This exchange displays the intrinsic prejudice that already existed in the perpetrator. He resorted to verbally and then physically aggressive behaviour based solely on the racial profile of the victim, as he had no prior knowledge of the victim.

Instances of similar prejudiced behaviour could have been spotted in other walks of life during the outbreak of Covid-19. An Asian-American student reported that his teacher asked him to go to the nurse’s office after coughing (revealed to be caused by choking on some water) whereas other similarly coughing non-Asian students were not made to see the nurse. In a similar, albeit more insidious vein, John Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas defended criticisms against Trump, saying “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats & snakes & dogs & things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the Swine Flu.”

These instances may be in essence summed up by Mr Mok’s remark: “Racism is not stupidity – racism is hate. Racists constantly find excuses to expound their hatred – and in this current backdrop of the coronavirus, they’ve found yet another excuse.”

Racist acts, especially in these times, are reminders that discrimination in all its forms must be tackled at the root. For it is often people of colour that are most susceptible to attacks and most severely affected by pandemics. The fact that racism continues to plague the modern world is a testament to how the concepts of race and race relations are not discussed enough. That, there are still those of us that create excuses or remain ignorant to the damage that this kind of prejudice brings upon society.

Indeed, Godfrey et Al highlight that “the common assumption is that people do things rationally, that they consider their options and consciously make decisions to act or not to act” and that “racist behaviour can be one example of unconscious predispositions, and such mental processes can affect international relations.” As Covid-19 continues to haunt the world, this has opened a new opportunity for global dialogue as the virus became our common enemy. And so, instead of pointing fingers to one specific race or ethnicity, this should become an exercise in international cooperation and understanding. 

One thought on “Covid-19 and Racism

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  1. Thank you for this and raising a very important point about racism. You are absolutely right that the pandemic has been another vehicle through which racists vent their filth. This is another reason why the timing of the renewed prominence of BLM is important because it has put racists in, not least the UK and USA, on the defensive at a time when the far-right was in the ascendance. Of course we must be ever vigilant. But I was surprised by your very bold opening statement: “The one thing coronavirus has proven: pandemics lead to a rise in detrimental, often selfish acts of behaviour, as fear begins to take hold”. Fear has certainly kicked in everywhere, but is selfish behaviour the dominant, universal, form of behaviour type to have emerged? What of the clapping for the NHS and the, at least, 1 million people who volunteered for the NHS at very short notice? No doubt many readers have their own examples, but where I live in Oxford several independent, non-funded self-help groups have emerged together with lots of work being done by people volunteering for the established local NGOs and charities and the council. With one foot also in Liverpool and having lived in Bradford and Norwich and with lots of activist-friends there, I know its been the same in those cities. I have read of civil society campaigns under way in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya to help promote public health and to campaign against state repression. More widely this book looks very interesting:


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