A History of Fear: A Brief Look at Discrimination in Times of Health Crises

07 May, 2020

International Affairs

“We’re all in this together” has been the general sentiment that is prevalent in the newsfeed of every major social media feed and institutional response to the Coronavirus. But this slogan is expressed more easily than observed. In times of fear and uncertainty, it isn’t surprising to see some states rush towards containing the looming disaster and put a hold on problems that seem not so urgent. And history is forgotten in hopes of a new and better solution. As government-enforced lockdowns are being challenged and worries over the economy have taken over, the people who are the victims are being rendered to mere statistics. In all fairness, inspirational efforts are being made worldwide, but there have been and there are issues of discrimination that has become prevalent.


In a recent article by Mohna Ansari that urged the people to remain aware of the absolute significance of human rights staying a central concern during these trying time, shows but a hint of plea towards this exact concern. One has to remain mindful that such emergencies have in many instances served as a basis for further alienation of certain communities and has prevented sympathetic responses – trading ideals of protection and tolerance for a burdening cautious nature to emerge. The fact that symptoms of such mentality have already emerged in general conversations and political dialogues does not bode well. The fear of the disease leads to the fear of people who are at probable risk as well as those who are infected, and irrationality and ignorance just exacerbate the effects.


A History to Not Repeat


From considering plagues to be the wrath of the Gods to terming them global health emergencies, the spread of deadly diseases have been a reality of human society. The first plague to warrant practices of self-isolation wiped out most of the European population and was perceived as the Black Death in the medieval period. And the fatality rates were much higher than what the Covid-19 has accounted for.


Some degree of weariness existed against the Jewish community in the predominantly Christian Europe around the time and it should not come as a surprise that some sought to point fingers in their general direction when the plague struck. They were blamed of poisoning wells. Even when Pope Clement VI showed considerable foresight in arguing that the plague resulted in Jewish deaths too, political and economic motivations prevailed in pursuing mass persecutions in many states. 200 Jewish communities were scratched off from history, and the religious differences formed a basis for anti-Semitism to spread its already digging roots further. In the case of one of the oldest known outbreaks of diseases: leprosy, the stigma was held by those affected as the plague was considered a punishment from God whereby the affected were banished from society and were treated as untouchables.


When HIV/AIDS first made its appearance in the 1980s the homosexual community got heavily stigmatized. Pamphlets distributed around the time by the Alert Citizens of Texas read “The Gay Plague: Homosexuality and Disease.” Without any reference being given to facts or research having being consulted, this development carried on in the mindset of several individuals very well into the 21st century. Discrimination against the LGBTQ has sustained in several civilized parts of the world as a result of it since then. Similarly, when the cholera outbreak in 1982 caused mass unrest and was traced back to the Russian Jewish population, the entire community was eyed with wariness and fear. A New York-based physician Geo F. Shrady had commented in a letter to the U.S. government that, “The disease entered our port on account of defective quarantine and it has been carried to us mainly by filthy immigrants”.


It becomes significant to note that in such times, information of every kind and especially ones that pertain to its spread latches on to public perception in a pretty rapid manner. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or the SARS pandemic showcased that quite effectively. Multiple media sources in trying to make sense of the anxiety that surrounded the threat opted for more dramatic accounts of events instead of headlines that could have abated some irrational fear that was targeted towards the Asian community. A rift in Northern America occurred when as a result of such exaggerated reports Asian American started receiving discriminatory treatments: of avoidance and aversion, both in personal and economic spheres, wherein extreme situations several recorded that they faced death threats.


The Present


French Asians were amongst the first who fought against the rising racist backlash in their country when the virus started claiming more lives in Europe. The community hit back on social media with #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus or “I am not a virus” after being confronted with stigma in public transportations and schools. The situation has been balanced on a precarious scale and in some conditions has exposed a side of human responsibility that seems lacking on major fronts. BBC published a report in early April of a far more deep-seated harmful mentality where two French doctors accused of racism were found arguing for treatments trials for coronavirus being conducted in Africa where one of them reportedly said, “If I can be provocative, shouldn't we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?”


Countries that are ringing in the highest death tolls particularly fall into such conversations. The President of the United States has been repeatedly questioned about him calling the virus the “Chinese virus”, which he has continuously defended on press meetings. The unfortunate but predictable spiral that this caused in more racist slurs to become a part of the administration’s wordings has raised concerns of Asian Americans being targeted in the future. China, on the other hand, has been under scrutiny for its treatment of the African population residing in the state. Mostly students, there have been reported cases from Africans stranded there that they were being singled out because of their race China’s claims of friendly relations with the African nations.


Furthermore, polls conducted in April in Canada recorded a rise in Anti-Asian racism in some of its major cities. In Melbourne, parents of sick children have declined doctors or health care workers who held an “Asian appearance”. And this becomes an issue when people start to openly utilize their fear as a valid tool of discriminatory practices, or as a way to reinforce their preconditioned dislike of certain groups or communities. Social media again serves as much as a potent tool of spreading information that carries such negative connotations as much as it can be a medium to bring good messages to the light.


India has become a ripe ground for furthering the Islamophobic agendas, particularly after the Tablighi Jamaat debacle where an increase in the number of cases were detected in people who attended a religious gathering in March. Since then some government officials have made it evident that they have seen it as a form of “corona jihad”, with many Muslims being ostracized for supposedly deliberately causing a spike in the virus spread in several parts of the country. Similar concerns of persecution have been troubling the Muslim minority in Nepal as the positive cases rise in the country.


People do fear what they do not know. But in existing times the people may not have the luxury to stick to that particular form of argument. Several state institutions, public figures and global networks have been more than active in trying to spread accurate information about the Covid-19 pandemic. However, racism and stigmatization have followed the current phenomena as well. It has been the truth of times that practices of discrimination do not follow rhyme or reason. However, ignorance cannot be treated as an excuse for such practices to continue during the modern health crises.


The views expressed above belong to the author.