Ngurang Reena, a PhD scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, took a cab a few weeks ago. It was a tough week for her. As the news around coronavirus broke, she, along with her JNU peers, had received a notice by the university administration to vacate their hostel rooms in a few days. The academician—who is also a human rights activist and a writer—was cabbing it to a friend’s place (her home is over 2,000 km away from Delhi in Arunachal Pradesh) when the driver turned around and said, “Madam, we should just burn all these foreigners alive.” Reena asked in Hindi, “What do you mean?” He repeated, “Let’s just kill and burn all these foreigners who are bringing their diseases here.”
Today, as Reena recounts this interaction with VICE, her voice still falters. “Imagine if I didn’t speak Hindi, he could have thought I was a Chinese. He could have done anything to me,” she says. “No matter how much I reasoned with him, he didn’t listen. If he can think like that, I’m not surprised more people think like that too.”
Over the last two weeks, instances of xenophobic abuse, racism and discrimination have been rising exponentially, across the world. Everywhere, cases have been coming up, where people have been beaten up, spat on, insulted, pelted with eggs, or just called “corona” which has weirdly enough emerged as a racial slur. Eventually, the World Health Organisation had to come out and tell people not to be bigots (because people really have to be reminded to be nice) and use terms like “Wuhan virus”, “Chinese virus” or “Asian virus”.
As we see the world slipping into the Dark Ages and allowing inherent biases, xenophobia and racism to surface in the face of the ongoing pandemic, our home turf is no different. In India, pre-existing, deep-seated prejudices against several communities are resurfacing, especially against the people from the Northeastern Indian states (who are often hurled racial slurs owing to their resemblance with East Asian features). And it all started with name-calling. “A few days ago, I was filling petrol, and some guys standing by the pump murmured something about me,” Abenao Seram (name changed to protect privacy), a resident of Navi Mumbai, told VICE. “I could hear only ‘corona’, but I thought to myself that first they used to call us 'Hakka noodle’, ‘chowmein' etc, and now it's coronavirus.” The bullying has got especially vicious for some, like the case of a Manipuri woman in her 20s who got spat on by a guy, who did so while calling her “corona”.
There are also instances of people from the Northeastern states living outside their hometowns being evicted and chased out of their homes by their landlords and neighbours. Some were forced to observe self-quarantine, even though they had no physical symptoms of coronavirus, no foreign travel history and no apparent contact with any lab-confirmed COVID-19 patient. The rising hate crimes, in fact, has worried the authorities even more, who have now asked for strict action against racial abuse.
But history has shown us that a large-scale disease or outbreak is almost always accompanied by stigmas and prejudices against certain people. “There’s always one community that bears the brunt of it,” Sanglipong Lemtur, a research scholar at the centre of social medicine and community health at JNU, tells VICE. “When it was AIDS, people targetted the gay community. Tuberculosis is nowadays associated with the working-class section of our society, where they became targets of people’s fears and irrationality. With coronavirus, it’s become a racial thing, where people from China or East Asian-looking people are being discriminated against. We are now also seeing people who have contacts with foreigners being discriminated against, or being stigmatised.”
Apart from the Northeastern people, others who have tested positive, or those in close contact with COVID-19 positive cases, or even those returning from the affected countries, are facing societal harassment and abuse. A 63-year-old Mumbai resident—who tested positive for COVID-19 on March 13 and succumbed to it on March 17—faced social discrimination and abuse via phone and social media after he tested positive. “Since the day he tested positive, he started facing criticism from many people—his close relatives, some society residents and also those who have known him for years. He received messages where people blamed him from spreading the virus,” a resident told The Indian Express. “The next day, someone sent him a message stating that the man who had tested positive had died. Imagine receiving a message of your own death.”
This rumour-mongering and discrimination are also why the Air India staffers had to put out an emotional appeal for Indians to stop ostracising the crew that is travelling abroad to rescue Indians stranded in countries like China, Italy and Japan. “It is alarming to know that in many localities, vigilante resident welfare associations and neighbours have started ostracising the crew, obstructing them from performing their duty or even calling in the police simply because the crew travelled abroad in the course of their duty,” said the statement.
Psychological studies have shown that humans are pretty susceptible to “one of the least charming but most persistent aspects of human nature”: bias, of literally any kind. And just like many complicated things in the world, biases are inextricably linked to history, culture and sometimes just pragmatism. “I always wonder why [hostilities towards certain communities] take place, for example to someone from my background,” Meiyang Chang, a prominent Indian actor and singer of Chinese descent, tells VICE.
Chang recently spoke up about coronavirus-fuelled racist attacks in India, including the time he was also called “corona” by two men. “Having a sense of humour is great, and I'm always up for laughing at myself. But humour cannot be at the cost of deprecating someone else. It severely undermines your sense of belonging. There's already enough inherent bias on the basis of size, shape, complexion, class and so on. And in times like [the coronavirus pandemic], some people's fear and frustration manifests in a racist manner. It's not cool.”
As we witness some people choosing hate over empathy during this pandemic, some experts have identified misinformation and rumour-mongering, especially on social media, as key drivers of discriminatory and racist behaviour. “This infodemic compromises outbreak response and increase public confusion about who and what information sources to trust; generates fear and panic due to unverified rumours and exaggerated claims; and promotes xenophobic and racist forms of digital vigilantism and scapegoating,” write professor S Harris Ali (of the sociology department at York University) and Fuyuki Kurasawa (associate professor at York University also York Research Chair at Global Digital Citizenship) in their analysis in The Conversation.
In India, this “contagion” of misinformation and fake news has now met a pandemic in its literal and unprecedented sense. Together, they have been leading to unchecked acts of bias, prejudice, fear and hate. The misinformation, inability to understand what’s going on, and a general failure to inform the masses with credible facts, are the main sources of fear and confusion right now,” says Reena. “And fear allows people to act arbitrarily, it makes them suspicious and impedes us from reasoning. You can see that in the way most Indians are responding to coronavirus right now. People assume it’s like one of those Hollywood apocalyptic movies, where violence breaks out and zombies are around. People are hoarding food and other supplies as if it's the end of the world."
But it’s also not not fair to talk about how, amid all this negative news, the pandemic is still bringing out the best in people. “I see it myself,” says Chang. “Our societies and people are coming together and working together to help out those from lower economic sections. Lots of people I know are supporting their house help, and, generally, people are being empathetic, especially towards the marginalised and poor.”
Lemtur too believes that this pandemic, as with most disasters, has changed our immediate needs and what we value, on a personal as well as at a societal level. “You look at what are the essential departments in our societies, like healthcare, or food,” he says.”You don’t see bankers out there, but you do realise the importance of sectors such as agriculture, which brings us food, or the medical field. I’m hoping that from this point on, the government will invest in such essential sectors that we need for our daily sustenance.”
However, even as pandemics come and go, stigma never, ever really goes. “Our societies are quite robust and bounce back, no matter what,” says Lemtur. “But stigmas remain.” Studies and data, in fact, will tell you that most often, the impact of stigma is visible to all but those who inflict it. This is why the last two weeks have brought in a range of concerns over the mental health of those especially in quarantine, who face everything from social isolation to stigmatisation. One extreme incident involved a coronavirus suspect dying by suicide, reportedly over the fears of what the illness will entail.
Which is why, it’s crucial to look at those caught in the web of fear, misinformation and overwhelming anxieties over coronavirus—like the Air India crew, or people from the Northeastern states. Because despite the enormity of the problem, there is a wavering concern that just like all stigmas, this one might just stick too, which will affect generations of that community. “To live with racial prejudice, for instance, means growing up with a major identity crisis. It put me in a shell for over a decade,” Chang tells VICE. “My confidence took a huge hit, and, honestly, living with such biases and prejudices can have significant emotional consequences. We brave it, but it remains a daily struggle. Even though things could get worse, thankfully there is also plenty of empathy around, and many good samaritans who rebuke and oppose such behaviour. Now there is a central advisory to prevent it as well. A situation like [a pandemic] is a great test of character. It either brings out the best in you or the worst.”
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