As the world battles to keep up with the dramatic increase in new Covid-19 infections – at the time of publication, coronavirus infections had surpassed 220 000 with just over 10 000 dead – it seems each new case is met with another racist or xenophobic remark or attack.
Earlier this week, US President Donald Trump insisted a tweet about the virus was not racist.
On Twitter, he repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”. During a press briefing at the White House on 18 March 2020 when he was asked why he used that term despite an increase in reports of bias against Chinese Americans, he said: “Because it comes from China … It’s not racist at all. Not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.”
The US has been criticised for its indecisive response to the outbreak of Covid-19, with the administration failing to provide a coherent strategy or honest updates.
Instead Trump has been playing into gross forms of health nativism, showcasing his racism and bigotry by referring to the outbreak as the “Chinese virus” and attacking opposition leaders. Health nativism isn’t a new concept. Politicians have long hid their xenophobia behind concerns for the wellbeing of a nation. It has been used to support anti-migrant policy, legislation and border security. In the US, health nativism dates back to the late 19th century, when nativist legislation restricted migrants’ movement and access to healthcare.
In Dissent magazine, Stephanie DeGooyer and Srinivas Murthy wrote: “The migrant crisis of the past decade has also served as fuel for claims of pestilence and disease being brought into countries.
“The coronavirus brings its own share of nativist fear mongering in the name of public health safety. In addition to Trump’s rhetoric about the ‘Chinese virus’, anti-Asian racism has spread around the world, with stories of small businesses refusing service to Chinese customers and petitions by citizens calling for the quarantine of Chinese nationals.
“But despite its overt racism and xenophobia, health nativism can often be difficult to separate from sensible public health procedures like quarantine and social distancing, which are also isolating tactics.”
Trump’s presidency has lacked fixed ideological positions. The only guarantee has been his bigotry and narcissism. So it is unsurprising that now, in a time of crisis, he uses racist terms instead of providing leadership.
The South African government responds
But this is not just an American phenomenon. In South Africa we have seen ministers and former mayors endorse similarly xenophobic ideas. Former minister of health Aaron Motsoaledi blamed the crumbling health system on migrants, while former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba enacted a citizen’s arrest of a street trader in the name of not “allow[ing] people like you to bring us Ebolas”.
Motsoaledi, now minister of home affairs, said at a media briefing earlier this week that the South African government has taken the decision to screen people based on their travel history and not on their nationality.
This came after news that South Africa would be closing 35 ports of entry. Motsoaledi’s statement is refreshing – he has often demonised migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa, both as minister of health and of home affairs.
On Thursday afternoon, however, it emerged that minister of public works Patricia de Lille had invoked emergency procurement procedures enabled by the Disaster Management Act to erect new border fencing along the Beitbridge border post at a cost of R37-million. Not only is it a waste of money that could be used on testing kits or providing water and sanitation to areas desperately in need, but it resembles the actions one would associate with Trump and his regime.
While the government and elected officials have been responsible in their statements during the outbreak of Covid-19, it is the hate and discrimination emerging elsewhere in South Africa that is concerning.
Discrimination on the streets
Back in February, just as the virus was spreading from China to other countries, and South Africa had yet to see its first case, Erwin Pon, the chairperson of the Chinese Association in Johannesburg, told New Frame that the community had been facing an increase in incidents of discrimination.
“[The] majority of [it] has been online. They will comment on posts. Some people will call it the yellow fever, which is extremely racist. They will call it a Chinese virus. They say, ‘Good, the Chinese deserve it. I [hope] it kills all of them,’” Pon said.
“Some of this anti-Chinese sentiment has been extremely racist and offensive,” he said. “Some will say, ‘They eat everything’. They say, ‘They eat cats and dogs’ – that in itself is generalising. There is a small portion of Chinese [who] do, but not the majority,” Pon said.
In Greenside, Johannesburg, the owner of a sushi restaurant wrote a now deleted post on Facebook about remaining open during the outbreak: “I just want to ensure Greenside and surrounding areas that Shalow [sic] Waters Chinese restaurant has no Chinese people working in our shops, I know a lot of people don’t want to go to Chinese restaurants because of this virus, I the owner want to ensure that I am trained in health and safety and want to ensure all that we are taking all precussion [sic] to ensure you safe will dining at out shops, I know a lot of people are fearful of being near to Chinese. I can assure you that we are all local [sic].” Attempts to contact the owner have been unsuccessful.
There has been reports of individuals in South Africa also facing discrimination. Earlier in March, a video was circulating on social media of students jeering and shouting, “Corona! Chinese!” at a guest researcher at the University of Venda. The university issued a statement last week apologising for the incident.
Eyewitness News also reported at the start of March how one of their own reporters, Abigail Javier, was met with discrimination in Sandton.
“I was rushing back to the Gautrain from work. I was walking down West Street. It was raining … cold. I coughed softly as I had a slight irritation in my throat and suddenly a lady sitting on a bench angrily shouts at me, saying that I shouldn’t cough here. That I should go back to my country. That I must voetsek,” Javier wrote on Facebook.
“Firstly, I’m not Chinese. I’m South African Filipino. And even if I was Chinese, why does that matter? Why do YOU assume I have the virus because of the way I look? Ever since this coronavirus outbreak started, I’ve been wary of my interactions with people. Because of all the discrimination happening around the world.”
While South Africans have heard some grossly racist and xenophobic statements and seen people of Asian descent being treated suspiciously, in other parts of the world, fear of Covid-19 has manifested in violent attacks.
In the UK, a Singaporan student was brutally attacked by two teenagers in a racist attack. In the Ukraine, local residents clashed with police as the bus carrying 70 Ukrainian citizens who had been evacuated from China was stoned upon arrival.
“Around the world, as the pandemic spreads, the terror associated with this unknown disease has become a petri dish for the rise of intolerance and a broader epidemic of violence,” Sasha Abramsky wrote on Truthout. “Rather than working together to craft a truly global mitigation strategy for slowing the spread of the disease, many responses have taken a distinctly nationalist flavour, focusing more on militarising borders than on effective measures for preventing the spread of the virus.”
As the pandemic continues to grip the globe, the fear associated with it will also increase. Just as the virus is spreading at an exponential rate, so too is misinformation, racism and xenophobia.
The world needs solidarity in the face of the coronavirus: solidarity with the sick, solidarity by curbing the spread of Covid-19 and adhering to calls for social isolation to flatten the curve, and solidarity in the fight against the intolerance shown towards vulnerable groups of people and minorities.
Additional reporting by Tebadi Mmotla.