Racism in the Time of Corona

Racial discrimination and prejudice aren’t novel for this world, unlike the COVID-19. Race and ethnicity have been the two major building blocks of our society. We can trace its origin back to the slavery of the Africans and African-Americans in the United States during the 18th century, the anti-Semitism that blew up in Germany during the Second World War or Islamophobia post 9/11; new disease, old story.  

Society has always found it comforting and easy on their minds to deflect their insecurities and frustrations onto a group, a minority or a defined culture. This is what is generally referred to as the Scapegoat Theory, that is, the tendency to blame someone else for one’s problems, a process that often results in feelings of prejudice toward the group that one is blaming. 

When struck with this unforeseen disease that no one thought would erupt and set alight the world, with no prospects of fizzling out any time soon, people turned to the old blame-game. The uncertainty, the fear, the anger and frustration, although no justification for such acts of racism, led to a huge rise in Sinophobia (or Anti-Chinese sentiment). It also led to xenophobia and violence against people of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent around the world. 

The Coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China has not only infected people physically but mentally and as stereotypically as it could. Draconian comments such as “wipe the Chinese people out” and “hope this virus gets all of them” etc. have been expressed throughout the world, apathetically. However, this discrimination isn’t a result of just the pandemic, or the lockdown frustration because that would be a fairly a simple explanation for the centuries of entrenched racism. 

According to the Race Conflict Theory, the race came about as a tool to justify and maintain the economic and political power held by those of European descent ages ago. The prejudice that we hold against certain communities, is, by and large, an extension of the stereotypes we create with an implicit bias that comes into play while making judgments about them. And this chain of stereotype leading to prejudice creates discrimination-unequal treatment of different groups of people. 

The matter in question today is the virus and its origin in China that has led us to fabricate a stereotype and deplorable feelings towards the Chinese and Asian people. This includes incidents of Northeast-Indian students facing odious and hurtful remarks in colleges, more than 1,000 South Korean tourists being instructed to avoid public places and remain in isolation in their hotels, and even being rejected by hotels and forced to spend nights at the airport, a woman being called “coronavirus”, threatened, and spat on by youths in Schaerbeek and a French newspaper Le Courrier Picard featuring an Asian woman wearing a mask on its front page on January 26, 2020 with a headline “Yellow Alert”. The paper also titled an editorial “A New Yellow Peril”. These instances are overlooked every day by most of us as they are not considered undignified or moralistically unrighteous.

Yellow, a term mindlessly anointed to the Asians isn’t new. Segregation based on colour has been a rite as archaic as the Old Testament itself. To think that Racism is not a 21st century paradigm would be a self-delude, a ‘Racism without Racists’, because even though the explicit views might have become less prominent due to their social condemnation and fewer people’s willingness to say them, doesn’t mean that this racism doesn’t exist. It has morphed into a more structural and anchored form of racism. 

This has manifested some economic repercussions too, as nations are withdrawing their faith in China, particularly the United States, whose President Donald Trump has been ramping up his censure of Beijing and threatening new tariffs on China. The United States is considering retaliatory measures against China over the outbreak. A commentator from a US news channel even went so far ahead as to criticise the country for selling virus-infected bats in open-air marketplaces and have business and tourist travel between “that country” and the “civilized world”. These slurs and scorn are touching new bottoms of impropriety across the world, emanating their ideas of what is civilised, as we just saw. 

But this sentiment hasn’t been restricted to just the Chinese people. Sinophobia was an antechamber into a spur of punitive sentiment against many communities, like the Muslims and the Jews.

Islamophobia reinforced its clutches in India after an incidence of Muslim gatherings organised by the Tablighi Jamaat that resulted in large increased cases in India, which has triggered Islamophobic reactions and increased communal tensions. Fabricated videos falsely claiming to show members of the missionary group spitting on police and others quickly went viral on social media, hospitals refused to treat Muslim patients which led to the deaths of at least two newborn babies, and the Indian media hopped onto the bandwagon of anti-Muslim stories and headlines like a moth to fire.    

In a country already beset with 70 years of friction between the Hindus and Muslims following the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947; gory wars, terrorist attacks and the recent CAA-NRC bill, this new information spread animosity across the country like a wildfire. Instead of dealing with the issue of the virus getting out of hand, due to unequivocal carelessness on the part of certain people, the quandary shifted seamlessly from the economic and social situation of the country to the incongruous matter of factitious religious sentiments. This hate-mongering has ignited the ember of aversion that is already extant in this nation, making hashtags like #CoronaVirusJihaad viral. It’s both shocking and commonplace at the same time for India to spew such hatred against the Muslims amidst a larger issue of a threatening pandemic. 

Authoritarian societies tend to see the societal structure as people who are naturally superior (as they say), having the right to power over others (minorities). It’s a perpetual cyclical motion of various ideas that lead to something grave. A difference based on racial heritage, called ’Pluralism’ gives birth to this pattern which then leads to what sociology refers to as cultural ’Assimilation’ and further ’Segregation’. However, this cycle doesn’t cease until it reaches the point of ’Genocide’. This is a theory, but it cannot be discredited as purely abstract because history has given us enough corpus delicti to believe that such a heinous crime can occur. The Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide are testaments to the exacerbated results of racism and pluralism into something inconceivably ghastly. 

This pandemic has shed light not only on the flaws of our societal structure but the general hierarchy of the Capitalist nature of the economic and political organisation that we follow in the 21st century, necessitating a huge change in both our attitudes and the way we function at large. 

People’s prejudice has blinded them, making them ignorant of the fact that this virus is affecting everyone equally, affecting ‘them’ as much as it is distressing any other person; that it is us against the malady and not each other. But hasn’t that always been the human folly? 


Poorvi Gupta

A struggling student at Delhi University, pursuing Economics honours. You'll find me mostly hibernating, during while I read and write. I love everything old, be it books, music or buildings.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.