COVID-19 stoking the flame of racism and xenophobia

COVID-19 stoking the flame of racism and xenophobia
avril 29, 2020 Hannah Stevens

In this blog, friend of the network Katie Lau, reflects on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities, and calls for solidarity, care and transformation as we rebuild and reimagine our world post-pandemic.

This blog is the second in a series which marks the release of the 2020 Ariadne Forecast, and looks at the challenges and opportunities identified by funders through the lens of the current pandemic.

As a second generation Chinese immigrant born in the UK, now living in Spain, my identity has always been racialised. When I first heard about COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, I was braced for hostility. Guarding against potential discrimination or bias causes stress and anxiety. It causes minority stress. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I am always assessing my safety, acceptance, and legitimacy in a space. Black and minority ethnic (BAME) people experience racism-related stress to different levels and degrees but it is a feeling that we have all felt in our lives. It is a direct product of systematic racial bias and structural racism.

However, no amount of anticipation prepared me for the level of hostility, racism and xenophobia that has manifested. Here in Madrid I have seen shops selling face masks to protect from the “Wuhan Virus.” On the day school closures were announced, a surge of racialised abuse came my way. A colleague asked if I was from China, and when I responded “no”, they said “oh, so you are not dangerous.” When I took the metro, a man sang “coronavirus” at me. These experiences are not unique to me.

Since the pandemic started,  racism and scores of violent racist attacks against East Asian people have been reported across the world, from Canada, to the Netherlands, UK, France, Spain, Egypt, and the list goes on and on. You just need to see the hashtags #NoSoyUnVirus, #IAmNotAVirus, #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus to see how fast racism has spread. Many Chinese owned businesses have also been affected and forced to close due to people avoiding local Chinatowns or the Chinese community; in some places business dropped by 50%. My own family take-away business has been affected as customers stayed away.

The racialised framing of a disease or virus by the media and political leaders dehumanises East Asian people, and gives licence to  hate and discrimination. But this is not new. Throughout history Chinese and non-white people have been made scapegoats for public health epidemics. This finds root in the colonial mentality that BAME communities are uncivilized and unhygienic compared to White Europeans. “Othering” is a powerful tool to misdirect blame, as we are also now seeing in China where the black community are targets of coronavirus hostility.

Racist COVID-19 responses manifest themselves in different ways and beyond racism and racist attacks. The same structures that allow a group to be vilified are the same structural inequalities that lead to BAME people to disproportionately experience the negative impacts of COVID-19. Migrants are being pushed further to the margins due to social distancing rules, African Americans are dying in higher numbers in the USA, and the first 12 doctors in the UK to die from COVID-19 were all BAME; these are not coincidences. While more research is required to determine the reasons for these statistics there is no doubt that structural and institutional racism and discrimination underpin these stark divides.

#CharitySoWhite, which started as a conversation about institutional racism in the charity sector in the UK, has produced a document highlighting the risks and impact of COVID-19 on racial inequalities in the UK. The paper shines a light on how BAME individuals are systematically shut out from mainstream society through racialised healthcare access, lack of legal routes to citizenship, being in lower-paid work (often key work), and lower rates of home ownership. All these intersect to put BAME people at higher risk of COVID-19 health, social and economic impacts. How people’s identities intersect will determine how they experience this pandemic, meaning racism cannot be separated from other forms of discrimination; sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, among others.

The pandemic has shown that business as usual is not good enough. It has been positive to see funders and social justice organisations setting up COVID-19 response funds to support marginalised communities, such as the Collective Future Fund, Edge Fund UK and OutRight International, while others are allowing flexibility in shifting funds in these uncertain times. But as we emerge from this pandemic, the test will be if funders build on and learn from what COVID-19 has shown that they can do and continue to invest in sustainable and considered responses. Principles of flexibility, intersectionality and responsiveness are not new. Funders recognised this in the recent 2020 Ariadne Forecast, which also highlighted racism, xenophobia and rising populism as some of the most pressing global issues for social justice actors.

I am writing this as a call for solidarity, care and transformation. We cannot let our differences divide us. I have been heartened by the stories of communities coming together to support each other, including in the UK and Spain, which is why more resources need to be directed to support local citizens’ initiatives. I am also warmed by the political leadership in Portugal where all migrants and asylum-seekers were granted full citizenship rights during the outbreak to reduce public health risks. This shows that it is not a lack of resources but rather a lack of political will that stops states from dismantling the structures that systematically exclude minorities. We must be able to hold those in power to account for the structural injustices that have been exacerbated by the crisis, and for the measures that they will put in place for recovery to rebuild societies.

COVID-19 is not an equaliser. It has exposed the inequalities and injustices that exist. We cannot go back to a time before COVID-19. When the pandemic is over, we must make sure the most vulnerable are not left picking up the pieces and forgotten. Now is the time to reimagine a world that values rather than dehumanises migrants, that builds affordable housing, accessible Universal Health Care systems for all people, and that dismantles structural inequalities that reproduce health and income disparities, and expose BAME communities time and time again to racism. From individual action to collective care, our only option is to act.

By Katie Lau, international development, gender and migration professional, and former Migration Exchange Coordinator.

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