Racism, Intolerance, and the Coronavirus
Recently, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared that the coronavirus crisis “continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering.” In fact, the pandemic has disproportionately affected racial, ethnic, and religious minority communities—in a unique and intersecting fashion—on both sides of the Atlantic. As nations re-open, these historically marginalized groups require equitable responses from government officials, civil society actors, and community leaders that not only address the pandemic’s effects, but also the underlying social inequities that inform their daily realities, including socioeconomic status, health issues, and living conditions. Treating all communities identically despite varying impacts culminates in additional injustices.
#JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I Am Not A Virus)
From prejudicial attitudes about racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups to verbal threats and physical assaults directed against them, the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated interpersonal and individual-level discrimination in myriad contexts. In fact, related manifestations of anti-Asian racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia in recent months bring this into stark relief.
First, the onset of the coronavirus crisis has inflamed anti-Asian racism. Largely inspired by stigmatizing political rhetoric referencing the disease as the “Wuhan virus,” the “Chinese Virus,” and the “Kung-flu,” representative incidents include a woman yelling “get this coronavirus chink away from me” at a Chinese-American speaking in Mandarin publicly, and a man shouting “Trump 2020, Die Chink Die!”at another victim. Commonly scapegoated as carriers, Asian-Americans have also been physically attacked, banned from businesses, and refused transportation services. According to Russell Jeung, the chair of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, “The incidents reflect a disturbing trend, that Americans are blaming Asian Americans for a biological virus. Instead, we need to hold our American government accountable to controlling the disease and to safeguarding our public health. Both the virus and racism are dangerous threats to the Asian American community.”
Significantly, the view across the Atlantic should also give collective pause. For example, the United Kingdom has also experienced a surge in anti-Asian incidents including verbal harassment, online aggression, and physical assaults. Between January and March, 267 related hate crimes were reported across the country, exceeding figures recorded during all of 2018 or 2019.In France, a local newspaper apologized for its biased headlines— “Alerte jaune” (Yellow alert) and “Le peril jaune? (Yellow peril)—coupled with an image of an Asian woman donning a protective mask. The public backlash inspired a social-media hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus).
Second, the pandemic has created fertile ground for anti-Semitic tropes, conspiracy theories, and plots. For instance, far-right extremists have encouraged followers to deliberately spread the coronavirus to Jewish communities. Others have targeted Jewish institutions and synagogues, disrupting videoconferencing sessions with hate speech. Additionally, conspiracy theories that Jews spread the disease to exert their global influence and expand their power have flourished. Anti-Semites have also depicted Jews as greedily profiting from the public-health crisis by making loans, exploiting the stock market’s instability, or overcharging for vaccines. Still others have depicted the virus as being Jewish people that need to be “cured.”
Third, Islamophobia adopted new contours amid the global pandemic, including misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories stoking racial and religious animus. In the United Kingdom, for instance, misleading videos have depicted Muslims as violating social-distancing restrictions to deliberately spread the virus among the “infidels.” Bigots have seized upon this narrative in an American context as well. Such misinformation campaigns, disseminated via social media, are not without consequence for the minority faith community. For example, in London, a Muslim woman was assaulted when a man coughed in her face, advised that he had the coronavirus, and called her a “raghead.”
In addition, socioeconomic status, health issues, occupation, living conditions, and related inequities exacerbated the pandemic’s impact on marginalized groups on both sides of the Atlantic. The virus has worsened social inequities, too. Indeed, the public-health crisis revealed the potentially lethal consequences of structural discrimination, particularly among black and indigenous populations, both of which experience vast inequalities.
First, the coronavirus disproportionately affected black communities. According to a recent study, black people in England and Wales are 90 percent more likely to die from the disease than white ones. Researchers theorized that black overrepresentation may be due to occupations that are more likely to be public facing, such as food retail, healthcare, and transportation services. Additionally, such essential workers are more likely to reside in overcrowded housing where physical distancing is an unattainable privilege.
Similarly, the pandemic disproportionately affected African Americans. In fact, 30 percent of patients are African Americans even though the minority group comprises 13 percent of the U.S. population. Related state-level data is similarly revealing. In Illinois, where blacks comprise 15 percent of the state’s population, they account for 41 percent of fatalities. In Wisconsin, where African Americans make up 26 percent of the population, they constitute 81 percent of the virus’s casualties. This pattern also emerged in North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York.
Significantly, critics have highlighted several factors to account for such overrepresentation. For instance, many African Americans are essential workers and more likely to reside in densely populated neighborhoods where physical distancing is impractical. African Americans are also twice as likely than white ones to lack health insurance. Additionally, they are more likely to live in poverty and in neighborhoods with lower-quality healthcare.
Second, the coronavirus has disproportionately affected indigenous populations. The Navajo Nation has the highest per capita rate of infections in the United States. In New Mexico, Native Americans comprise 11 percent of the population but account for 60 percent of all cases. Experts attribute the minority community’s vulnerability to decades of poverty, disproportionately high rates of preexisting health issues, inadequate healthcare, a lack of clean running water, and overcrowded living conditions.
In addition to the individual-level and structural discrimination above, the coronavirus crisis has spawned institutionalized discrimination—laws, policies, and practices targeting immigrants. Depending upon the geographical context, such xenophobia affects myriad racial, ethnic, and religious communities.
Indeed, institutionalized xenophobia has flourished in Europe and the United States. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, a far-right populist politician has exploited the virus to justify immigration restrictions against African asylum seekers, although no causative relationship exists. Similar trends among rightwing populists have emerged in Spain, France, and Germany.
In April, the UN warned that the United States was using the pandemic to summarily expel asylum seekers. As part of a long-term strategy to slow the influx of newcomers, President Donald Trump has implemented additional restrictions. He also falsely claimed that the construction of a barrier wall on the border with Mexico will prevent further infections. Fox News host Tucker Carlson conveys the prevailing sentiment undergirding xenophobic measures: “They’d let you die before they admitted that diversity is not our strength.”
As communities emerge from the coronavirus crisis, transatlantic leaders may glean important lessons from the minority experience. First, to fully appreciate the adverse impact of discrimination on marginalized groups, it is significant to recall the multiple identities of individual members including race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and immigration. For instance, the Muslim experience in Europe and the United States must necessarily encompass the Asian, black, and Latinx experience as well. In this way, minority community experiences with discrimination are intersecting and interlocking in new ways.
Second, any group experience with discrimination sets a negative precedent and threatens equality for everyone. For instance, the preexisting social inequities that contribute to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact in black and indigenous populations may infect others. In fact, in the United Kingdom, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani communities are between 30 percent and 80 percent more likely to be infected by the virus than white people. While revealing the deleterious effects of structural discrimination, it reminds us of its highly infectious nature, too.
Lastly, we should avoid false divisions—white people versus black people, Jews versus Muslims, minority groups versus the majority population—in the struggle against racism, xenophobia, and intolerance. There is no hierarchy of suffering. In a post-pandemic world, all should work together to eliminate all forms of discrimination—anti-Asian racism, anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia— on team equality.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.