DISCLAIMER: This article contains sensitive content about racism and xenophobia. Reader’s discretion is advised.
‘I can’t breathe’.
Pinned to the ground and gasping for air on a curbside in Minneapolis, these were George Floyd’s last words before he took his final breath.
As COVID-19, a deadly virus that corrupts the victim’s immune system, invades their lungs and impedes their breathing, continues to rage across our world, who would have thought this plea would be symbolic of the connection between the pandemic and the relentless nature of racism? Who would have thought that the terrible history of racism that has persisted for decades would be echoed through this mantra of oppression? Who would have thought that this would lead to the diminishment of one’s humanity? Sadly, the murder of George Floyd is not the first time black people have suffered an unjust death. Even more tragic to note, they are also not the only race that is suffering. Those of Asian descent and other ethnic minorities are grappling with racism that has exacerbated during this crisis. In the UK, racists incidents against Asians were already being reported a month before the country’s first COVID-19 death. In Australia, a database of racist incidents launched by community group Asian Australian alliance has received 12 reports since the 2nd of April.
The pandemic has undeniably taken the world by storm as countries frantically wrestle to combat the transmission of this deadly virus. Ranging from the impacts on economic performance to healthcare and society, the alarming social-psychological effects have been accentuated with potentially longer-term ramifications that may outlive the pandemic itself. Just like my fellow colleague, Berlinda, who has passionately addressed the issue of domestic violence during this time, I too would like to use this article as a platform to support those who have been robbed of their human rights and to encourage you to take a stand.
The Historical Linkage
The global spread of the coronavirus has left even more room to spare for racism. Many of you who are reading this may have been, or still are, victims of racism, or at least know someone who has unfortunately experienced it.
According to USC’s Dornsife CESR, for the racial and ethnic minority in America to experience social injustice is nothing new. A previous study discovered that the probability for non-Hispanic Blacks to be discriminated against in their daily lives, ranged two to five times higher than non-Hispanic Whites. For Asians, the odds were three times higher than non-Hispanic Whites. What is more unsettling is that during this global crisis, an alarming number of Black, Asian and African Americans are facing a new form of maltreatment.
A study concerning the link between international responses to xenophobia and previous epidemics conducted by Alexandre Whilte, a historian and medical sociologist, underlined the heightened scrutiny and bias against non-Europeans who were blamed for spreading disease. The historical measures of health controls that have helped ‘cure’ countries from pandemics were also lethal ‘poison’ in intensifying aggressive acts of racism and xenophobia.
Dating back to the 19th-century, the bubonic plague serves as an example where xenophobic practices are associated with concerns about the economic risks of disease transmission. In South Africa, this boiled down to the almost complete removal of the Black African population in Cape Town to a racially segregated quarantine camp. This same pandemic in 1900 also illustrates America’s history of anti-Chinese sentiment in response to epidemics. As the disease first presented itself in Asia and later spread in Honolulu, the fear of contamination prompted its city administrators to impose a full quarantine of its Chinatown. Buildings and businesses owned by White Americans, however, were spared of the hardships that followed.
History Repeats Itself
Similarly, admidst the ravaging fever of COVID-19, the outbreak of the coronavirus has ignited fear with the death toll spilling over 400,000 deaths at present. In the midst of panic, many are finding a source to blame. It is precisely this element, this fear, that allows racism and xenophobia to thrive. It is this fear that irrationalises one’s thoughts and thus exposes the social and political fractures within communities. With this crisis wreaking havoc in nations worldwide, policy responses such as border closures and public-health restrictions, have unintentionally transformed into disconcerting expressions of nationalism and conflated with anti-immigrant rhetoric as well. China was ostracized as a country and was not offered any help when the disease first emerged, regardless, Chinese medical teams were sent to countries in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East once it successfully controlled the spread of the virus.
Moreover, despite the equalising nature of the virus who has the ability to affect anyone, policy responses have still disproportionately affected ethnic minority groups. In other words, the ethnic minority groups are the ones who have received the short-end of the stick, with limited health-care access, having to work in precarious jobs, and are over-represented in lower socioeconomic groups. Coupled with an old saying “When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia”, the fact that the coronavirus mortality rate for black Americans is 2.4 times higher than for white Americans is clearly indicative of the long-existing discrimination within their healthcare system. The ongoing neglect alongside years of redlining (in which Blacks having to live in spaces with poor air and water quality) and unequal job opportunities have only worsened racial disparities in this time of COVID-19.
To make matters worse, political figures themselves have misappropriated the crisis as well. From the former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy’s link of COVID-19 to African asylum seekers to the White House’s insistence on the term “the Chinese Virus” which hindered efforts to move on from the initial reference to the pandemic as “the Wuhan Virus”, and many more, these misappropriations have placed undue stigma and heightened racial discrimination, particularly towards Black and Asians at present.
Changing the Course of History
To achieve the long-desired world of equality for each and every single human being where no one is robbed of their right to breath is difficult. But if we believe in the promising future from taking action now, then the hardships along the way are only temporary and are definitely worth overcoming. The police officer that knelt on Floyd’s neck and snuffed out his life has now been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. With anti-racist campaigns, protests, and organisations persisting to counter anti-Asian assaults including the BLM movement, this momentum must continue.
We must not allow this crisis to continue serving as a host for this virus, this unjust xenophobia, to splatter a deeper stain everywhere. Educate, donate, and amplify suppressed voices. These small steps that we take will make a difference. Whereas scientists are gaining hopes in developing a vaccine to combat the coronavirus, we too must sustain, use, and channel this hope into our actions to cure the very heart of racism.
Useful Links to Help Show Your Support:
Learn more through regularly updated news articles discussing the racial impacts of COVID-19
A collection of ways to support the BLM Movement
A UK-Based List of Donations:
- Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust: works with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds
- The 4Front Project: Empowers communities to fight for justice and peace
- National Memorial Family Fund: supports families and campaigners against deaths in police custody
- SARI Stand Against Racism and Inequality: support to victims of hate
- Operation Black Vote: tackling the lack of black representation in politics
- StopWatch UK: a coalition working to promote fair and accountable policing
- Kwanda: a modern collection pot for black communities
- Show Racism The Red Card: anti-racism educational charity