Growing Xenophobia Amis covid-19
Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, a concomitant pandemic named as xenophobia has also engulfed the whole world. As per reported incidents so far, xenophobia, more specifically Sinophobia, is surging at an exponential rate across the globe. Stigmatization of Chinese people in the wake of outbreak of coronavirus has become new normal. People now look at Chinese with disdain and contempt for they consider them solely responsible for all the physical and mental afflictions that they are undergoing nowadays due to outbreak of Covid-19 which first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Moreover, this discrimination and antipathy is not restricted only to the Chinese peoplel rather people of East Asian and even South Asian descent having appearance and facial resemblance with Chinese are also facing xenophobia, prejudice, racial discrimination and violence.
Admittedly, disease inculcates fear in human minds which, in turn, fosters discrimination. This had been happening in the history whenever there was an outbreak of a pandemic. The chronological account of the world shows that during 1853 yellow-fever epidemic in the United States, European immigrants, who were perceived to be more vulnerable to the disease, were primary targets of stigmatization. During SARS outbreak, which originated in China, East Asians bore the brunt. When the Ebola virus emerged in 2014, Africans were targeted. For this reason, the World Health Organization, which is keenly overseeing the global response to the coronavirus outbreak, opted against denoting a geographic location when officially naming the new virus, as it did with Ebola (named after the river in Congo, where it was first detected) and the 2012, Middles East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). “Stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than virus itself;” this is what Dr Tedros Adhanom, the Director General of WHO remarked in a press talk.
However, we find newspapers replete with news pertaining to ballooning xenophobia and racial discrimination in the wake of outbreak of Covid-19. Surprisingly, even the country from where the virus originated is not immune to this social epidemic of stigmatization. According to the World Journal, there have been countless instances of Wuhan natives in other provinces being turned away from hotels, having their ID numbers, home addresses and telephone numbers deliberately leaked online or dealing with harassing phone calls from strangers. Some places also reportedly had signs saying “People from Wuhan and cars from Hubei are not welcomed here.”
In addition, on 29 March, renowned British daily, The Guardian, reported that Western and African expatriates in China were reporting enhanced racial hostility and discrimination in response to a shift of Covid-19 cases from local to imported ones. It claimed that media in China have published articles titled as “Beware of a second outbreak started by foreign garbage,” and incidents of foreigners being barred from restaurants, shops, gyms and hotels, subjected to further screening, and verbal attacks and exclusion are mounting in China, day in day out.
Moreover, people of Hong Kong have also started displaying their antipathy for the people of mainland China. The restaurants in Hong Kong are now demanding customers to produce their identity card of Hong Kong in order to prove that they are not from the mainland. Tenno Ramen, a Japanese noodle restaurant in Hung Hom, refused to serve mainland Chinese customers. The restaurant said on Facebook, “We want to live longer. We want to safeguard local customers. Please excuse us.”
Indians, too, are showing unjustified bias and prejudice towards Chinese people. An Indian Islamic cleric named Ilyas Sharfuddin said in an audio address that the coronavirus outbreak was a “punishment from Allah on China for mistreating Uighur Muslims.” He said, “They (the Chinese) have threatened the Muslims and tried to destroy lives of 20 million Muslims. Muslims were forced to drink alcohol, their mosques were destroyed and their Holy Book was burned. They thought that no one can challenge them, but Allah the most powerful, punished them.”
Apart from this, in Israel, more than 1,000 South Korean tourists were instructed to avoid public places and remain in isolation in their hotels. The Israeli military announced its intention to quarantine some 200 South Korean nationals at a military base. Many of the remaining South Koreans were denied check-ins by hotels and were forced to spend nights at Ben Gaurian Airport. An Israeli newspaper subsequently published a Korean complaint that “Israel is treating (Korean and other Asian) tourists like coronavirus.”
Sadly, in Japan also, the situation is not different for Chinese, the hashtag #ChineseDontComeToJapan had been trending on Twitter; furthermore, on Twitter, Japanese people have called Chinese tourists ‘dirty’, ‘insensitive’ and ‘bioterrorists’.
According to an Ipsos MORI poll, 28 percent of Japanese respondents said they would consider avoiding people of Chinese origin in the future to protect themselves from coronavirus.
What’s more is that even in Singapore, an online petition urging the Singaporean government to ban Chinese nationals and travellers from China from entering the island country was signed by 125,000 people.
To add, the Ministry of Home Affairs of Singapore has ordered an investigation against an Islamic teacher, Abdul Halim bin Abdul Karim, after he had posted on Facebook that the coronavirus pandemic was “a retribution by Allah against the Chinese for their oppressive treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.” In a separate post, Abdul Halim claimed that Chinese people do not wash properly after defecating, and were not as hygienic as Muslims, causing the virus to spread. Home Affairs and Law Minister, K. Shanmugam, slammed the comments as ‘silly’, ‘xenophobic’ and ‘thoroughly racist’ and ‘quite unacceptable from anyone, let alone someone who is supposed to be a religious teacher’.
Even in England, on 12 February 2020, Sky News reported that some Chinese people in the United Kingdom said they were facing increasing levels of racist abuse; Chinese businesses in the United Kingdom, including the busy Chinese takeaways and businesses in London’s China Town recorded significantly low number of customers in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak compared to usual sales related to Chinese New Year celebrations, due to fears of coronavirus spreading through food or unhygienic working practices.
Also in the United States, there have been reports of over 1000 cases of xenophobia and racism against Asian-Americans between 28 January and 24 February 2020, which was during the first Covid-19 cases that were reported in the United States. Media critique organization “FAIR” has documented instances of anti-Asian racism on the streets, and states that many US (as well as UK) media outlets capitalize on Sinophobia and “Orientalist tropes” that the Chinese are inherently sneaky and untrustworthy, and are ruled by an incompetent, authoritarian government that is the “Sick Man of Asia”.
Moreover, US President Donald Trump’s frequent references to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” have been criticized as anti-Chinese and racist, as well as diversionary. Trump continued to use this phrase despite criticism from Democrat legislators as well as Asian-American advocates and public health experts, who said that the use of the phrase inflamed tensions and cited a surge in attacks on Asian-Americans. Scott Kennedy, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Trump’s use of the phrase fuelled a narrative relating not only to the Chinese Communist Party “but of China and Chinese people in general” and was “xenophobic and tinged with racist overtones,” especially given the Trump administration’s past statements and actions.
To conclude, there is a hope that the world will soon surmount the ongoing pandemic. But the pandemic of xenophobia launched particularly against Chinese people and generally against the people of East Asian and South Asian descent, if not inhibited earnestly, would continue to haunt the generations to come and thereby jeopardize the peace of the world.
The writer is a legal practitioner-cum-columnist
based in Quetta.