Corona virus, which originated in Wuhan district of China, spread quickly infecting and killing millions across the world. World economies have shattered and the pandemic has also created existential crisis for mankind. The countries hit by the virus had to shut down all the economic and routine activities and people were forced to lockdown themselves in their homes. The virus has left millions of people jobless and vagrant. Amid all these crises, there is a spike in racism leading to physical and verbal attacks on Asians and people of Asian descent living in different parts of the world. This article talks about rise of new age racism amidst the global pandemic and also suggests ways in which we can tackle this problem.
HOW THE VIRUS GAVE WAY TO RACISM
With the outbreak of COVID-19 there has been an increase in racist terms and news articles targeting the whole Asian community. They are being mocked at for their exotic eating habits and appearance. Many incidents have been reported where Asians have been spat on, yelled at and even being threatened on the streets. There has also been an increase in the violent targeting of Asian businesses across the globe.
From its earlier experiences of Zika virus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, WHO knew how adding place of origin of the virus could lead to discrimination against people belonging to that region, so this time they were careful and named it COVID-19. But eminent leaders like Donald Trump started playing blame game and addressed it as “Chinese virus”, even the U.S. Secretary of State addressed COVID-19 as “Wuhan virus”. This provoked social stigma and discrimination against the Chinese people. Across the globe, a very strong narrative was set against Chinese people in particular and Asians in general.
But this is not the first time that the spread of a disease has caused anti- Asian racism. All this anti-Asian racism dates back to mid-19th century, when Chinese first imigrated to North America. Politicians in North America at that time promoted Chinese immigration as they served as cheap and efficient labour compared to their English counterparts. Gradually, as time passed, the natives of North America started developing hostility towards these aliens. They thought that these people were responsible for the spread of small pox, syphilis and leprosy on their land. This was the genesis of xenophobia and racism against Asians in North America.
With time it seemed like this situation was healing, but with COVID-19, the situation became worse. Stories of travails of Asians have surfaced the internet. Asian doctors, across the globe, are not only tackling coronavirus but are also fighting racism. In one incident a Chinese American doctor from Boston Hospital was followed by a man through the subway, vilifying her by passing racist comments.
How COVID-19 led to racism in India-
Even India is not free of such racism. Owing to COVID-19, there has been mass migration of north-eastern people who were in different parts of the country to their hometowns in north-east India. But those who were not fortunate enough and had to stay back due to some unavoidable reasons became prey to racist attacks. Recently, there was a case in Delhi, where a Manipuri woman was spat at and called corona virus. These people, who neither belong to the country from where the virus emerged nor have anything to do with the origin of the virus, are being attacked in their own country only because of their appearance. This makes the current time harder for them because not only they have to protect themselves from the virus, they also have to bear the brunt of the increasing racist attacks on them owing to their physical appearance.
Discrimination faced by the frontline workers-
Along with all the panic, threat and anger, COVID-19 has also brought new age discrimination in our society. It is not only limited to Mongoloid people but has been extended to all the frontline workers. This pandemic has made us witness some of the worst sides of human behaviour. People have turned their backs on those very people who are responsible for protecting them like doctors, policemen and sanitary workers. There have been instances where landlords have asked doctors to vacate their house. Same is the case with policemen and other frontline warriors who are working day in and day out to ensure our safety during this pandemic, keeping their own health at risk.
Apart from them, COVID-19 patients and their family members are also at the receiving end of hatred. Even those patients who have recovered from coronavirus are being treated in a pathetic manner.
INDIAN LAWS AND POLICIES FOR ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION
In India we have a deep-rooted culture of discrimination. Acknowledging this fact our constitution makers have made provisions in the constitution like article 15(2), to ensure that there is no discrimination on the basis of religion, race or region. Apart from this, section 153(A) of Indian Penal Code aims at punishing those, who with a malign intent indulge in vilifying or attacking any particular group or class of people on the basis of their religion, race, place of birth, residence etc. Further, section 505(c) of Indian Penal Code punishes those who publish or circulate statement, rumor or report with an intention of creating hatred or enmity between people on the basis of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground.
In the wake of rise of discrimination during corona period, Union Health Ministry of India has issued an advisory urging people not to discriminate against COVID-19 patients and their family members and the frontline workers, who are risking their lives to control the spread of the virus. The Union Government of India has even proposed to promulgate an ordinance that will make violence and harassment against the frontline warriors deployed in combating COVID-19 a non-bailable offence. This ordinance will amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Any offence under this ordinance will attract a punishment of anywhere between three months and five years in jail, besides a fine between Rs 50,000 to 2 lakh. In cases where injuries are serious, the punishment will range from six months to seven years, and carry fine between Rs 1-5 lakh. The amended law can also be invoked by these healthcare personnel if they face harassment from their landlords or neighbours over suspicion that they may carry the coronavirus owing to the nature of their work.
The United Nation’s committee responsible for monitoring racial discrimination has recommended the governments to adopt “national action plan against discrimination”. Although, India is a signatory to this UN committee responsible for monitoring compliance with the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, there is still no law to tackle the problem of racism. In 2014, a committee was set up in this regard, the Bezbaruah committee, that advocated for penalizing acts inciting hatred towards any particular community and using any word or gesture which is intended towards belittling or demeaning people belonging to any particular community. However, no concrete action has been taken till date on the basis of these recommendations. But now, more than ever, we need to have an anti-racism law in order to protect our fellow citizens from north-east India from being stereotyped and also to ensure their protection from any racist attacks.
SUGGESTIONS TO CURB THE DISCRIMINATION OWING TO COVID-19
The new age racism that is developing during the pandemic started off by targeting the Chinese but expanded to everyone with similar appearance and now is taking hold over the entire Asian community. Steps need to be taken before this virus of racism infects the whole world. So here are a few suggestions which can prove to be useful in curbing the spread racism.
1. We all know how media plays a very important role in forming our ideas. It needs to be even more cautious in such sensitive times. Media should use people friendly language. This will stop fueling of the negative thoughts in people’s minds and further help in reduction of social stigmatization. Circulation of insufficient and fake information would contribute to stigmatization of people belonging to the area of outbreak. This would have long term consequences. Putting a check over the spread of such fabricated or inadequate information can play a crucial role in curbing the spread of racism.
Same is the case with social media. In today’s world everyone is well connected through social media, so spreading news through it becomes very easy. Therefore, it is the duty of all social media platforms to check that their platform does not support any content which is tainted with xenophobic ideas and should employ adequate mechanism to address the issue.
2. While talking about coronavirus we have to be cautious. We should avoid using any terminology which adds fuel to the already existing stereotypes or language which backs the persisting discriminatory attitude of people towards Asians. For example, we should not refer the virus as “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” and should not call the people who have contracted the virus as “victims”. World Health Organization has laid out guidelines on do’s and don’ts while talking about coronavirus in order to stop the spread of discrimination. There are many examples where the use of people first language helped in controlling spread of hatred during epidemic like, HIV, TB and H1N1 flu.
3. COVID-19 took the world by shock and the challenges brought by it are also unprecedented. The world wasn’t prepared for it and so were our policies. But now Governments across the globe need to fill the gaps in their policies to ensure that the growth of anti-Asian racism and other kinds of discrimination coming along with COVID-19, are nipped in the bud. Stringent punishments should be prescribed for acts, either physical or verbal, which encourage racism.
4. Governments can also start awareness campaigns to educate people regarding this issue in order to ensure that people do not discriminate against policemen, health workers, sanitary workers and people who have either contracted or recovered from the virus.
The cause of origin of the coronavirus is unknown and is surrounded by controversies. In such tensed and confusing times people find it tempting to put blames on others and target certain groups. This is creating a xenophobic environment for them, in turn discouraging them from disclosing their illness or seeking health care. This issue needs to be addressed immediately. Promoting xenophobia or discrimination against any particular group would just make the matters worse.
We need to understand that the virus wouldn’t discriminate between people on the basis of their race or to which region they belong to. It would treat each and every individual alike. So, it is very important that we all face this pandemic together as a united front and help each other to come out of this situation rather than blaming each other and giving rise to situation.
This article is written by Tushar Nigam and Madhavi Raje, students of 1st year, pursuing B.A.LL.B(Hons.) at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.
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