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The new coronavirus outbreak has caused a global frenzy. First reported in the Wuhan province of China, it causes a disease called COVID-19. The death toll, as of Sunday, reached 1,770 in China according to the country’s National Health Commission. Researchers across the world are rushing against time to find a way to halt its rapid progression. Naturally, it has also created an atmosphere of panic and anxiety across boundaries, with the virus spreading to different countries at a dangerous pace. Unfortunately, that is not all that has spread.

Reports of racist behaviour towards people of Asian descent have been on the rise, not only in India but also in the West, with the rise of panic around the coronavirus. There have been instances of derogatory comments, physical assaults and even downright refusal to include people of East Asian ethnicities. In the guise of hygiene and safety, xenophobia is being legitimised.

In a country which is already quite intolerant of anyone who doesn’t appease the mainland Indian’s point of view, such behaviour stems from an extremely unforgivable racist attitude towards North East Indians.

Recently in Mumbai, a Naga woman, student of TISS, was forced to leave the building she was staying at due to racist behaviour. A local resident assumed her to be a Chinese woman infected with the virus and attempted to make a video of her. There was a heated confrontation as well which eventually led to the departure of the woman. In a country which is already quite intolerant of anyone who doesn’t appease the mainland Indian’s point of view, such behaviour stems from an extremely unforgivable racist attitude towards North East Indians.

The National President of the Hindu Mahasabha, a right wing political outfit in India, has claimed that the coronavirus is an ‘avatar’ meant to non-vegetarians. He has drawn parallels from Hindu mythologies and has assured Indians that the virus won’t affect them as, “God worshipping and Gau Raksha believer Indians” are immune to it. This is a clear attempt to demonise (quite literally in this case) the perceived outsider – by implication the outsider being anyone who isn’t Hindu.

#JeNeSuisPasUnVirus meaning ‘I am not a virus’ as a response to racist headlines in France

Around the world there have been several instances like these. Chinese restaurants are being boycotted even after assurance of the origin of their ingredients and preparations. In New York City, USA, a woman wearing a face mask was allegedly physically assaulted and called ‘diseased’ due to racist behaviours. In an Instagram post, which is now deleted, University of California Berkeley, Health Services termed bigotry and bias as ‘normal’ and “common” during the coronavirus outbreak, effectively attempting to normalize it.

In Sri Lanka, a group of Singaporean tourists were denied entry inside a monument due to their appearance. In Canterbury, New Zealand, an email was sent to a Chinese-origin student’s parent, which reportedly said, “Our Kiwi kids don’t want to be in the same class with your disgusting virus spreaders.” In Japan, the hashtag #ChineseDontComeToJapan was on the trending list for a while. The historic win of South Korean film Parasite at the Oscars also saw racist comments related to the virus.

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It is not just the local population of these countries that are participating in these racist behaviour. Media outlets have been accused of creating headlines and graphics that have contributed to a xenophobic attitude. The headline of The Daily Mail in Sydney for a piece was ‘China kids stay home’. A publication in France put out an article on the outbreak with the headline ‘Yellow Alert’. A Danish newspaper published a graphic which replaced the the small yellow stars on the Chinese flag with a picture of the coronavirus.

Image Source: Business Insider

Misinformation as well as lack of information is bound to have its effects. A public health scare usually results in paranoia and extreme caution and vigilance. However, none of this can or ever will be an excuse for racism. All these incidents against people from East Asian countries and North East India also bring to light the ignorance fostered by people towards Asian ethnicities.

One would think that with the high rate of deaths, a certain sensitivity and a sense of empathy might be inculcated in a population, but all it has done is encourage and to an extent, also legitimise xenophobic behaviour. The role of the media, with inappropriate, sensationalised and trivialised coverage and reporting has given indirect encouragement to the public to continue this spread of racism and xenophobia. Not only that, but this kind of irresponsible journalism has also lent a kind of justification, a sense of credibility to what is essentially discrimination.

The headline of The Daily Mail in Sydney for a piece was ‘China kids stay home’. A publication in France put out an article on the outbreak with the headline ‘Yellow Alert’.

To combat this, there should be strict action against such hate crimes. Open condemnation of racist behaviour should be done in order to establish that it is wrong and unacceptable. Along with that, proper awareness about the disease should be made via verified sources of information. The more knowledge there is, the lesser assumptions there will be – which might result in decrease in baseless xenophobia.

In times like these: Be careful with your interpersonal behaviours along with your personal hygiene awareness.

Also read: On Racism And How My Ladakhi Features Never Quite Fit The Indian Imagination


Featured Image Source: Vox

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