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Tryst with Sinophobia
Xenophobia is a set of attitudes and/or practice exemplifying intense hatred, dislike or fear manifesting itself as a visible hostility towards strangers or those deemed to be ‘foreign’. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic engulfing over 188 countries across the globe, another global issue that has surfaced in tandem is the rise of bigotry directed towards people of Chinese or East Asian origin primarily because the Coronavirus first surfaced in Wuhan, Chin. The resentment is fueled by world leaders who have resorted to addressing the virus as ‘Chinese virus’ further exacerbating discrimination towards people of the Mongoloid ethnic origin. Not only does this act of leaders influence gullible minds towards inciting hatred but also bolsters the anti-social elements to act with violence towards a specific community.
Such community directed violence need not always be in the form of physical violence, it manifests itself in various forms including online harassment, name calling, social ostracism to note a few indirect forms of discrimination.It ought to be the responsibility of governments to ensure that such acts of violence directed against specific communities, particularly the marginalized ought to be publicly condemned and their perpetrators legally punished for incitement of hatred and disrupting peace & order. However, the so-called global superpower the United States has resorted to geographic-based naming of the virus thereby encouraging anti-social elements to partake in racist acts. Such proliferation of discriminatory stereotypes and dissemination of information with unfounded evidence to substantiate claims is not only unconscionable but also inconsistent with the international human rights obligations of member States.
Historical experiences of Xenophobia during disease outbreaks
Pandemics/Epidemics in the past have demonstrated similar violence,pertinent to the regions that the microbes originate from. The USA in particular has demonstrated anti-Chinese sentiment through its past reactions during the outbreak of bubonic plague in the city of Honolulu and neighboring Chinatown regions in the city with strict quarantine and movements restricted to combat the spread of the disease. However, buildings and businesses associated with the white Americans were allowed to fully function in the region discriminating against the Chinese‘intruders’ in the city. The rapid attempt at associating contagious viruses with specific regions like ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘Ebola’ which is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the ‘Spanish flu’ which is named such despite the origin of the microbe in Spain diverts the attention of people towards specific regions and segregates them as the epicenter of the outbreak, leading to resentment upon its spread.
Alternatively, despite claims that the HIV (human immune-deficiency virus) which is responsible for AIDS had originated in the United States, global media and discourse does not associate Americans to the disease. Likewise, the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MSRA) which first affected patients in Boston, has never been referred to as a ‘Boston plague’ or such similar names. During the outbreak of H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009, Mexicans and Latinos were scapegoated in the United States. Ebola outbreak has resulted in widescale discrimination against people of African descent and Haitians were blamed for the spread of HIV/AIDS though theories claim that the virus originated in the city of New York.
The expansion of European colonies not only resulted in colonial imperialism for myriad of countries in Africa and Asia, it also crumpled the indigenous populations by spreading smallpox and other European diseases they had carried along. Alternatively, they too began to be infected by multiple tropical diseases and leading to multiple deaths in Europe and Europeans in the colonized countries. Not only did the plague and cholera take away the lives of hundreds of Europeans, it also led to the death of many more in India and Africa amongst other countries.
Xenophobia amidst COVID-19
The narrative of ‘otherness’ is what leads all to ascribe to the blame game in order to justify prejudicial rhetoric and has been evidenced in the past through the Jewish persecution during black death. There has been a global outrage towards Chinese and people from Asian descent. Before global shutdowns ensued, a few instances in order to exemplify this point can be listed as follows: In the United States, between January to mid-March, around a thousand cases of xenophobia and racism were reported by Asian Americans in California alone. The government of New York City cited a report which estimated a 40 percent sales drop for Chinese businesses, while other reports suggested the drop ranged from 30 to 80 percent. The Santa Cecilia music school in Rome, Italy on Wednesday singled out students from East Asia, prohibiting them from attending classes over coronavirus concerns.Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student, was attacked on Oxford Street in London. In Hertfordshire, the owner of a Chinese takeaway was spat on by a customer.An Nguyen, a Vietnamese artist, was disinvited from the Affordable Arts Fair in London by an exhibitor as she would “create hesitation on the part of the audience to enter the exhibition space.”An NHS nurse, Reizel Quaichon, was physically and verbally assaulted on her way to a night shift in Brighton.Despite this, the government and media have done little to allay fears and prevent prejudices from spreading and escalating. In India, general animosity towards China and casual racism has been visible as North-east Indian students were verbally abused and harassed.
All such motivated attacks on the Asians (specifically the Chinese) exemplify a new form of bigotry termed as ‘Sinophobia’ which builds itself on the animosity against the Chinese culture and descendants of the ethnicity. The United States has been particularly involved in implementing such beliefs in their policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 aimed at maintaining racial purity which was later repealed. Recently, Donald Trump’s attempt at restricting immigration for Chinese students and scholars in 2018 has encouraged people to exhibit anti-Chinese behaviour. ‘The Economist’ not only called the SARS-COV2 the ‘Wuhan virus’ but also pictured a surgical mask with the Chinese flag on the Earth’s surface labelling ‘Made in China’. A reputable French newspaper, Le Courrier Picard read Coronavirus as ‘New Yellow Peril’ which is a racially charged term especially with its origins to the first wave of East Asian immigration into the US in the 19th century resulting in anti-Asian sentiments.
Predatory journalistic measures to appease state governments and disrupt peace by capitalizing on vulnerable populations, using various social media platforms to amplify and reinforce existing anti-immigrant tendencies exacerbates the existing prejudice in the minds of many. Such anti-immigrant behavior has induced food insecurity and compelled migrants to return to their origin countries.
Resolutions to Combat Xenophobic Bigotry
At the outset, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) – a legally binding international instrument that comprehensively addresses racism and racial discrimination requires signatory States to adhere to it with 182 countries having ratified this Convention. Furthermore, Article 3.1 of the International Health Regulations strictly requires all additional health measures to be implemented “with full respect for the dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons”, which in turn must reflect international law principles of necessity, legitimacy, and proportionality that govern limitations to and derogations from rights and freedoms. With the recent happenings reported worldwide regarding violence against the Chinese, there is a clear violation of the international health standards and can lead to a humanitarian crisis. Recently, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution appealing governments and people to work together towards upholding human rights and equality for all during this pandemic, and take concerted steps towards ensuring that freedom from xenophobia and racism, which often serves as a motive to engage in genocide or holocaust needs to be contained. It needs to be acknowledged that diseases can infect anyone irrespective of their ethnicity, race and religion, and governments need to work towards combatting that.
The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (‘CDC’) has actively discouraged people from making assumptions or stereotyping that merely because someone is from the Asian descent ought to be a carrier of the novel coronavirus. According to their respective statements, stigmatization and public ostracism can drive people to abstain from seeking medical care for fear of discrimination. Not only does it bear the potential of coercing people to hide illness for fear of violence but also discourages them to engage in healthy practices.Amnesty International issued a report on the “Seven Ways the Coronavirus Affects Human Rights” and listed racism and xenophobia amongst the most significant and dangerous side effects of the virus.
Iris Marion Young in her noteworthy piece of ‘5 Faces of Oppression’ has noted how certain communities are exploited, marginalized, made powerless, subjected to cultural imperialism and forced to socially ostracize themselves.Similarly, xenophobia compels people in the majority to advocate for the suppression of an ethnic community merely on the basis of pre-conceived notions – in this case, the location of the origin of a virus that could have commenced anywhere, without concern for race, ethnicity, gender or class.
As a matter of fact, xenophobia has always existed; it is during the pandemics that the sense of ‘otherness’ is triggered coercing people to blame those ‘others’ for being the carriers of (or) contributor to such a contagious disease, echoing old prejudices. Thus, in our quest to ‘fight in unison’ against the virus, stigmatization of certain communities can prove to be more detrimental to global harmony than the virus itself. As global citizens, we must ensure that we abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) which establishes freedom and equality to all, with legal protection against discrimination. Governments, media and the public are all responsible in allowing such insecurities to bloom. We ought to nip these sentiments in the bud and strive towards parity for all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Mustafa Rajkotwala is a law student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India.
Dhanishta Mittal is a law student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India.