Is coronavirus the virus of racism in disguise?

Courtesy: The Guardian

“All of a sudden, the first punch was swung at my face and took me by surprise. When I was still shocked by the first hit, the guy delivered the second sucker punch” said Jonathan Mok who at the time was walking past a group of men when he heard one refer to the virus, and he stopped to look at them.

“The guy who tried to kick me then said: ‘I don’t want your coronavirus in my country,’ before swinging another sucker punch at me, which resulted in my face exploding with blood (from my nose), where the blood was splattered all across the pavement,” added Mok.

Jonathan Mok is a 23 years old Singaporean student studying in London. He was recently attacked by a group of men in London on March 3, 2020. Jonathan is not the only Asian who has been attacked in the past few months of the spread of noble coronavirus.

Tax analyst Pawat Silawattakun, 24, was reportedly left with a fractured nose after teens screaming ‘coronavirus’ hit and robbed him in Fulham, West London. After jumping in to protect her partner from a group of people hurling racial remarks about the disease at a Birmingham pub, trainee lawyer Meera Solanki, 29, was knocked unconscious.

Outbreaks generate terror, and terror is a crucial component for the emergence of racism and xenophobia. The 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has uncovered social and political divisions inside populations, with racialized and unequal reactions to terror, impacting vulnerable groups overwhelmingly.

In the past, othering has been correlated with infectious diseases. Following the dissemination of COVID-19 from Wuhan, China, prejudice has risen against the Asians. This encompasses individual actions of microaggression or abuse, to group ways, such as the banning of Chinese citizens from institutions.

We knew this re-emerging wave of racial discrimination had hit India too when Indians from the northeast faced intensified racism. On 28 March, a 24-year-old woman arrived at KPC Hospital in Jadavpur, Kolkata, complaining of severe abdominal pain from a previously reported urinary tract infection. She was refused access to the emergency ward and guided COVID-19 screening elsewhere, despite having no signs of viral infection or documented coronavirus exposure

“I was not allowed to enter a grocery store during the lockdown. The owner turned me and my friends away,” said Rippon Shanglai, a student from Manipur, a state in India’s northeast.

India’s northeastern region is home to several tribes, including Nagas, Mizos, Garos, Tripuris, Bodos, Kukis and Meiteis.

Many of those individuals were violently quarantined, despite having no signs of COVID-19 due to their presence. There are claims that the owners of buildings in major Indian cities have tried to evict them during the country’s current shutdown.

It’s very unusual for racist assault cases to get real attention in India. The last ‘major’ event was when an exchange student was beaten up in a mall in Noida in March 2017. A recording of the incident shows the student lying on the floor trying to protect himself from the dam used to hit him with dustbins and stools. No one was seen to come to his rescue.

The North-East as a whole is more marginalized than the rest of the ‘mainland’ India, therefore even when issues do come up, they get buried under more ‘pressing’ matters brought up by more ‘visible’ areas and population of the country. The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing out all of India’s dark dealings out in the public eye, that too very obviously. Casteism, racism, Islamophobia (especially now with the Markaz case), domestic violence- you name it and it’s here.

Rights activists encouraged policymakers to protect vulnerable populations in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic. But other analysts say that the government is busy implementing the lockout and preventing coronavirus transmission, and avoiding racial cases is definitely not actually on the priority list.

Through Amendment to the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act (Prevention of Atrocities), 1989, the Central Government should consider the possibility of adopting legislation to prohibit natives of one state from abusing or committing hate crimes against migrants of any other Indian state in some way.

“When the prime minister announced the lockdown, just one or two lines from him saying we should not discriminate against northeast people would have spoken volumes,” said Alana Golmei, an activist and lawyer who sat on the Bezbaruah Committee.

Further, she added, “It is not uneducated locals, but the middle class, educated people and children from reputed schools who are perpetrators of these racial attacks.”

The virus of racism, however, continues to claim more victims. Even internally. We have seen that the “outsider” is always seen as the aggressor, the usurper in a community with close-knit communities. And also the emotion has contributed to racist behavior. I may claim that with certainty because I belong to the same culture that has seen a Bihari migrant worker- who pulls our rickshaw and builds our homes- often as the lowest form of life, abused and insulted by anyone who wants to.

When this is not racism, so what is it? It is only a matter of time before the war on coronavirus is fought by mankind. If only we would expect the same for the virus of racism.

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Movie geek, college student and someone who is watching the world with rose-colored glasses. Currently based in Delhi.

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Anjali Jha

Anjali Jha

Movie geek, college student and someone who is watching the world with rose-colored glasses. Currently based in Delhi.

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