'Virus of prejudice’: is coronavirus increasing hate speech and scapegoating?
Updated: Apr 30
Despite claims that Coronavirus is biologically indiscriminate, it’s becoming increasingly clear that its social and economic impact will not be (1). In Chicago, black residents have accounted for 70% of Coronavirus deaths despite making up only 30% of the population (2). On a global level, as the virus spreads to developing nations, countries without adequate testing and medical infrastructure will be ill-equipped to halt its progression. Equally dangerous are the negative stereotypes which are emerging due to Coronavirus, which have already brought about increased hate speech and scapegoating.
Photo by Nickolay Romensky, Flickr
Large-scale crises like COVID-19 risk an escalation of hate and prejudice. The severe political, social and economic uncertainty entailed could be considered the 'rapid and profound structural change' identified as key in the progression towards hate-based violence (3).
An immediate reaction to the spread of Coronavirus has been a rise in online prejudice and hate speech towards China. According to L1ght, a hate speech monitoring platform, online hate speech targeted against Chinese people has increased tenfold since December 2019 (4). One online petition called for the ban of Chinese citizens entering Malaysia, as ‘the new virus is widely spread through the world because of [their] unhygienic lifestyle’ (5). President Trump fuelled these stereotypes when he tweeted about ‘the Chinese virus’ (6).
This has translated into acts of violence in the real world; in mid-February, a man of Chinese ethnicity was punched and beaten on Oxford Street, London, in a racially aggravated attack. ‘I don’t want your coronavirus in my country’, one of the attackers shouted (7).
However, the increase in nativism and xenophobia is broader than simply an anti-Chinese sentiment. Japanese and Korean visitors across Europe have also been targeted in reported acts of racism. European visitors to African nations are facing prejudice, as the perception spreads that they are importers of the virus, with reports of harassment and assault of foreigners in Ethiopia and Cameroon (8).
In China there has been a marked increase in prejudice towards foreigners, as imported cases make up a large proportion of the daily new cases. In Guangzhou, many black residents have been evicted from their homes and confronted by police in in the street, due to the misconception that Africans are importing the virus. A sign on the door of a McDonalds in Guangzhou instructed that ‘from now on black people are not allowed to enter’ for health reasons (9). Some black residents in Guangzhou say that Coronavirus discrimination is simply the most recent expression of a deep-seated hostility towards the African community in China (10).
In Jharkhand, India, rumours spread that Muslim men were spitting on police officers in order to spread Coronavirus; a riot developed as a result of these rumours, in which a child was killed (11). This is part of wider trend in India, in which Coronavirus is being weaved into pre-existing narratives of distrust and hatred to encourage violence (12).
Other governments, groups and ideologies are incorporating Coronavirus into long-standing narratives of prejudice against the ‘other’. In Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has claimed that Coronavirus was developed by America as a ‘Zionist biological weapon’ (13). ISIS has recently described the virus as just punishment for non-Muslims, urging followers to launch attacks (14).
Fragile states are especially threatened by the ‘virus of prejudice’ which accompanies COVID-19 (15). It is much easier to stoke fear and enmity towards minorities with pre-existing stigma as outsiders, particularly if those minorities don’t have access to healthcare or basic hygiene facilities. It is also much easier to dehumanize others once they are reduced to figures, carriers, or risks in the public discourse. If Coronavirus spreads unevenly amongst different communities and ethnic identities in fragile states, or if it is perceived to do so, these minorities are likely to face increased risk of verbal or physical attacks.
Certain fragile states are also more vulnerable if they have large numbers of internally displaced persons or refugees. The conditions in many refugee camps are conducive for a high infection rate and a high death rate: poor hand-washing facilities, limited medical services and densely populated living areas which make isolation impossible. According to Martin Baldwin-Edwards, director of the Mediterranean Migration Observatory, Coronavirus is ‘going to be a death sentence’ for the world’s largest refugee camps (16).
Photo by UN Women, Flickr
Beyond the immediate humanitarian emergency, the long term effects of refugee camps hit by the virus will be prejudice and stigmatisation of those already marginalised from society, presenting displaced persons with even greater barriers to integration.
West Africa’s experience with Ebola also indicates that those who recover from Coronavirus may face prolonged discrimination. In August 2014, a survey conducted by UNICEF in Sierra Leone reported that 94% of respondents held negative attitudes towards survivors of Ebola (17). Those infected with Coronavirus may recover from the virus, but survivors may also face stigma, unemployment and poverty due to its legacy.
In South Sudan, the world’s newest state, Coronavirus threatens to wreak havoc on a woefully poor health system. There are four ventilators across the whole country, for a population of 11 million (18). There are still less than ten cases, but this is likely to rise once testing becomes more robust.
However, there are signs that South Sudan is choosing unity over division; local partners say there is some solidarity in the face of the coming hardship, and little increase in tension. The recently-formed Revitalised-Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGoNU) has also made efforts to pre-empt Coronavirus-related hate. South Sudan’s COVID taskforce has urged the public to refrain from initiating xenophobic attacks against patients, particularly local UN staff who have tested positive for the virus (19). President Salva Kiir has warned against stigmatising foreigners: ‘COVID-19 can be brought into the country by anyone, including South Sudanese’ (20).
This indicates that civil society initiatives in South Sudan which promote peace and counter-narratives to hate, including those being implemented by Rights for Peace's partners, are impacting society and government.
SSYPADO, Rights for Peace - Juba 2019
There is increasing international recognition that Coronavirus threatens the safety of many beyond its public health implications. On 30 March, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues Fernand de Varennes released the following statement:
‘Covid-19 is not just a health issue; it can also be a virus that exacerbates xenophobia, hate and exclusion… Combatting the epidemic requires tackling its darker sides. Firm actions by States and all of us to safeguard the human rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised, including minorities, indigenous communities and migrants, are urgent and necessary ’ (21).
COVID-19 has the potential to be a unifying force. Many governments have touted the collective spirit needed to carry out the measures which will curb the spread of infection – enforced lockdowns, mass social distancing and the pausing of economies. However more action needs to be taken in order to tackle hate speech, prejudice and misinformation emerging as a result of the Coronavirus, in order to protect those at risk of social repercussions.
Governments are encouraged to consider the following recommendations:
Adopt positive policy which protects group identities from hate speech, in line with the Rabat Plan of Action and the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech.
Empower public authorities to tackle misinformation which targets and scapegoats minorities based on COVID-related fear.
Make long-term provisions to secure the re-integration of those communities facing Coronavirus stigma.
(1) Michael Gove: ‘the virus does not discriminate’; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-52069921/coronavirus-gove-addresses-pm-and-health-secretary-s-positive-tests (2) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-52194018 (3) Verdeja, E, On Genocide: Five Contributing Factors, Contemporary Politics, 8 (1), pp.37-54 (2002) (4) https://l1ght.com/Toxicity_during_coronavirus_Report-L1ght.pdf (5) https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2020/01/559942/some-malaysians-calling-ban-chinese-tourists (6) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-51928011 (7) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/coronavirus-racist-attack-arrest-oxford-street-singapore-china-jonathan-mok-a9381736.html (8) https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-coronavirus-triggers-xenophobia-in-some-african-countries/ (9) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-52274326 (10) https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/10/china/africans-guangzhou-china-coronavirus-hnk-intl/index.html
(11) https://scroll.in/article/958543/the-other-virus-hate-crimes-against-indias-muslims-are-spreading-with-covid-19 (12) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/13/coronavirus-conspiracy-theories-targeting-muslims-spread-in-india (13) https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/19/iran-irgc-coronavirus-propaganda-blames-america-israel/ (14) https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8180683/ISIS-tells-followers-no-mercy-launch-attacks-coronavirus-crisis.html?ito=social-twitter_mailonline