A tragedy is a terrible thing to waste – for the haters.
Since the Black Death plague in the 14th century, every outbreak of an infectious disease has also been closely followed by an outbreak of stigma, racism and xenophobia. Things haven’t changed much 600 years later. As the world grapples with Covid-19 pandemic today, some countries are also finding their favourite scapegoats to hate on.
During the Black Death, people went after Jews, beggars, and foreigners across Europe. This time around, the Iranian government is blaming Jews, and the Israelis in turn are blaming Palestinians. The Chinese are blaming Uyghurs and Pakistanis are blaming the Hazaras. And at home, people en masse are blaming Muslims over the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi.
In a world marked by hyperglobalism and nationalist populism, we all are living in societies with almost state-sanctioned hatred against persecuted groups and minority communities. In such a world, the coronavirus pandemic is causing societies to find their own personal scapegoat to blame.
These new patterns of hatred during coronavirus pandemic reflect the already existing structures of marginalisation and persecution. Only now it’s on a global scale.
Global disease, local hatred
It all began with US President Donald Trump. Given that the novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan in China, the not-so-civil leader used this opportunity to label Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”. This follows the US-China trade war and all the rhetoric that accompanied it in the last two years. This also heightened instances of racism and discrimination faced by the Asian population in the US.
While Trump’s politics was expected, it makes little sense that the deeply persecuted Hazaras and seething African asylum seekers in Italy would be made the scapegoat in Pakistan and Italy.
“We are troubled that government officials in Balochistan are scapegoating the already vulnerable and marginalized Hazara Shi’a community for this public health crisis,” said United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Commissioner Arunima Bhargava.
The African asylum seekers – the continent with the least Covid-19 incidence – were blamed by former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini as the main cause of the virus’ spread in his country. When a boat carrying 276 Africans rescued in the Mediterranean, was allowed to dock in Sicily, Salvini went on a limb and asked Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to resign, accusing him of his inability to defend “Italy and Italians”.
In China, where the authorities, unlike anywhere else in the world, are actually acquainted with where the virus originated and how it spread, are using the crisis to further persecute the Uyghur community. They are forcing them to donate organs in order to save the lives of the infected Han population.
In India, while the Tablighi Jamaat need to be held accountable, the Muslim population at large has had to face the brunt of a government action and media-run hate campaign that blamed them for single-handedly spreading the virus across the country. And as shown by journalist Shoaib Daniyal of Scroll, the very premise of these “statistical” claims were based on basic sampling bias and errors.
“The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has uncovered social and political fractures within communities, with racialised and discriminatory responses to fear, disproportionately affecting marginalised groups,” notes a new study in The Lancet.
Hyper-globalisation meets nationalism
The three major economic crises of the recent past – Asian financial crisis, global financial crisis, and now the coronavirus pandemic – have all been caused by unrestricted global flows. In the first two instances, it was flows of global capital; and in the third, it was unrestricted human flows.
The inability of nation-states to balance between these flows with the task of providing welfare to their citizenry gave rise to populist nationalism around the world. The sheer lack of experience ensures that when met with a crisis, these populist nationalist leaders resort to the only thing they are really good at — manipulating the masses and raking up the politics of fear and discrimination.
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