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COVID Blog #7: Fear and Discrimination During COVID-19 Amplifies the Marginalization of Societies

As the pandemic has continued to spread across the globe, society as we know it has gravely changed. Quarantining ourselves at home and limiting our social distance when out on essential trips has become the new normal.

Fear and a lack of information has led to the harbouring of irrational beliefs regarding COVID-19 – specifically, racist ideologies pertaining to ethnic groups fostering the pandemic.  People are blaming stigmatized groups for ‘bringing in’ the virus. This discriminatory fear has spread like the virus itself, with hate crimes increasing around the globe.

“It's really clear since the emergence of COVID-19 that there has been a rise in racism here in Canada and there's also lots of reports of that around the world,” said Christine Hanson, director of the commission and chair of the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies.

Throughout history, outbreaks have been associated with ‘othering’ – a set of dynamics and structures that continue to perpetuate inequalities among marginalized groups. In an attempt to console uncertainty and fear, humans often turn to an inadvertent need to blame. From the Bubonic Plague in the 1900s,  SARS in 2002, and Ebola in 2014, minorities were accused of spreading the disease.

Blaming the ‘other’ is often easiest in the face of ignorance. This blame may start as a way to fill in the gaps, but is dangerous as it tends to grow. Discrimination turns into verbal or physical attacks which becomes constitutionalized in the form of systems such as racial profiling.

COVID-19 and Asian communities

Asian communities are especially subjected to scrutiny, as xenophobia has spiked around the world. There are countless reports about Asians facing verbal and sometimes physical attacks while out in public.

Cargill’s High River meat processing plant is the site of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak. Around 70% of the workers there are of Filipino descent, and have reported being treated with hostility.

Marginalized societies

Fear fosters discrimination, and marginalized societies are now facing greater stigmatization.

In China, Africans are the most visible ethnic minorities. There, they are being accused of spreading COVID-19. It has transitioned to people being banned from restaurants and facing evictions from their homes.

Prejudice and unjust treatment isn’t only exclusive to ethnic minorities. Religious minorities are also facing abrasive treatment amid the pandemic. In Pakistan, Christians and Hindus, the minority religious groups in that country, are being denied aid.

Shia pilgrims in Iran have been left there with no way to get back to their home in Bahrain. Although this was implemented as a travel ban to help contain the virus, the minority Shia group was not given the option to return under quarantine measures. Given that there is a hostile history between the Shia minorities and Sunni majorities in Bahrain, this has likely worsened the issue.

Technology and discrimination

Social media has played its part in spreading misinformation about COVID-19. Some declare it to be ‘the Chinese disease’ and have gone as far as to create racially-loaded aliases

Zoombombing is a recent social media development in which uninvited individuals enter a private Zoom meeting. This is often done as a means to bully and frighten those on the call.

Earlier in April, a Jewish community in London was subject to racist zoombombing. A BBC employee was participating in this synagogue Zoom meeting when people started rapidly joining. The group chat filled up with "vile abuse", according to the BBC employee. It was a clear and disturbing anti-Semitic attack. The majority of those on the call were families with children.

Social media researchers found that the coronavirus pandemic coincides with a spread of anti-Chinese resentment. Online attacks and the spread of misinformation is not just upsetting, but dangerous, as the abuse often does not stay in the cyber world. More East Asians are getting verbally and physically attacked, as well as having their businesses boycotted. “The words are like a virus, that leads to actions that are visible,” says Joel Finkelstein, director of the Network Contagion Research Institute.

Apps for peace

Several apps have emerged to help spearhead collective peace-building models. Two weeks ago, CTV announced that an app to document racist incidents was launched. Act2endracism is a tool created by Asian-Canadian communities in Edmonton to report and combat the increase in verbal and racial discrimination. The app also offers support to both victims and bystanders.

PrejudiceTracker is an app that offers a worldwide, anonymous platform for reporting discriminatory maltreatment. It provides a safe place for people to share their incidents, as well as acts as a real-time map to show where these assaults occurred. 

Moving forward

While many countries prepare to ease out of quarantine, we must realize that things will not suddenly return to how life was before. Racial tensions and profiling are now exacerbated and we must all do our part in helping minorities safely navigate through these perilous times. This starts with education and attitudes of acceptance.

Outbreaks monger fear and “fear is a key ingredient for racism and xenophobia to thrive.” No one is responsible for the spread of COVID-19. The virus is inclusive, a collective problem--it is a danger to all of us, regardless of our race or socioeconomic status.

At PeaceGeeks, we constantly seek to provide updated information regarding the impacts of COVID-19 on marginalized communities through weekly articles. Other sources we recommend checking are governmental and provincial sites and institutions such as the World Health Organization.

May 23, 2020
Category: Thematic Issues