Stop racial discrimination, fight the bug instead

Published on March 28, 2020

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Bangkok Post – March 28, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world in many ways. Among the several implications on humanity is the lesser talked about issue of racial or ethnic discrimination which has inherent psychological impacts.

The stigmatisation of a certain race or ethnicity is quite unfortunate. Interestingly, racial discrimination has been witnessed in the two largest democracies – the US and India.

In the US, President Donald Trump on March 18 referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”, insisting that using the term is “not racist at all”. “Because it comes from China,” he said at a press briefing.

The White House justified his comments by saying that a number of past pandemics are also known by their places of origin or where they were believed to have originated, such as the Spanish Flu, West Nile Virus, Zika and Ebola.

At the same briefing, Mr Trump also said that the Chinese government at one point were blaming American soldiers, who visited Wuhan last autumn, to be the source of the virus.

While Mr Trump has denied that there is any racial inclination, there have been several instances of Asian Americans being targeted verbally and physically over coronavirus fears.

Mr Trump’s comments have emboldened some of his associates and supporters, including conservative media persons and Republican leaders despite being advised by the country’s health officials not to use xenophobic or racist terms in describing the virus.

Although not all Asian Americans are necessarily of Chinese descent, the discrimination or stigmatisation has affected all other minorities of the Mongoloid race in the US and beyond.

In response to Mr Trump’s comments, the executive director of the World Health Organisation’s emergencies programme, Mike Ryan, rightly said: “Viruses know no borders and they don’t care about your ethnicity, the colour of your skin or how much money you have in the bank. So it’s really important we be careful in the language we use lest it lead to the profiling of individuals associated with the virus.”

India, the world’s largest democracy, has had its own problem of racial discrimination. While it is not a new phenomenon, the spread of the coronavirus has once again flared up the stigmatisation of people from the northeastern region of the country, who mostly belong to the Mongoloid race.

While there is a certain level of tolerance and understanding toward the people from the Northeast, there are still many from the so-called “mainland India” who have considered people from the Northeast region, which is relatively backward both in terms of economy and infrastructure, as outsiders or lesser citizens of the country, either due to ignorance or other discriminatory reasons.

Among many other incidents, a woman from the state of Manipur in Northeast India, filed a complaint at the police station in New Delhi on March 22 stating that she was spat on her face and called “corona” by a man.

Amid the increasing incidents of racial or ethnic stigmatisation, especially toward people of the Northeast, the Indian government has advised the states and union territories to take appropriate actions on individuals or groups who engage in discriminatory activities, including racial harassment with regard to Covid-19.

It is not only the two largest democracies that have witnessed discriminatory remarks over the pandemic. On March 13, Thailand’s Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said that European tourists pose a risk to his country. He criticised European tourists for not wearing face masks to protect against the virus and warned Thai people to be careful in dealing with the vacationing Europeans or Westerners “who wear dirty clothes and don’t shower”.

The minister made such provocative remarks while being fully aware that the country’s tourism industry brings in a significant income for the country. While the minister had some good reasons to be concerned about the safety of the Thai people, his comments were inappropriate and unnecessary. It could have flared up sentiments against Westerners and subsequently trigger retaliatory actions from the European countries against Thais and other Asians.

Those leaders and people who have a racial segregationary or discriminatory attitude toward certain sections or groups of people should remind themselves that a disease like Covid-19 has no boundary, race, ethnicity, and or nationality. Everyone is susceptible to the virus.

It is also important to note that there has yet to be a consensus on the cause of the virus, whether it is from animals – which was the initial theory – human error or a deliberate act of individuals or leaders or governments. While the world knows that it originated from China, there is also an unsubstantiated theory of the possibility that the virus was a deliberate or accidental use of a biological weapon.

Regardless, discrimination or segregation should not have a place in this globalised world of inter-connectedness and dependence on each other. The world must stand together against the deadly virus rather than stigmatise each other over the place of origin and or its inhabitants. Collective efforts to fight the virus must be the top priority since the number of infected countries and deaths are surging by the day.

More importantly, everyone should realise no race or ethnicity is the majority everywhere. A majority group in one’s own country is a minority in another country or land. Racism has no place in a civilised society.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is a Political Scientist, Associate Professor, Assistant Dean and Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University.

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