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Hate Speech Undermines Global Efforts to Fight COVID-19

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Coronavirus is fueling hate speech and conspiracy theories around the world, which could undermine much-needed international efforts to fight the novel disease.

There have been a deluge of anti-foreigner, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-African, and anti-Asian hate speech and attacks, across the globe. With more than 4 million confirmed cases of coronavirus around the world, and at least 283,000 known deaths, people are scared, and left untreated, fear can create hate, or fuel preexisting prejudices and racism. Online conspiracy theories, unfounded rumors, and disinformation have only exacerbated the problem.

In the United States, there’s been an uptick in racist attacks against Asian Americans, after U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” Many have condemned the president for using the term “Chinese virus”, because it encourages hate crimes against Asians. Some Asian-Americans have come forward with harrowing tales of having been shouted down and spat at, walking down the street.

Although coronavirus is thought to have originated in Wuhan, China, the virus has spread across the globe, infecting people of every nationality, religion, race, and gender. To combat the hatred, a city council in Texas unanimously passed on May 8, a resolution condemning hate speech toward Asian, Pacific Islander, and Jewish communities. The resolution reads: “COVID-19 is a public health issue, not a racial, religious or ethnic one, and the deliberate use of terms such as ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘Kung Fu virus’ to describe COVID-19 only encourages hate crimes and incidents against Asians and further spreads misinformation at a time when communities should be working together to get through this crisis.”

Meanwhile, in China, efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus in the southern city of Guangzhou, have unfairly targeted Africans. A number of Africans in Guangzhou have reported being singled out for coronavirus tests and quarantine, after rumors spread online that Africans were importing the disease into the country. Some Africans were even evicted from their apartments and forced to sleep on the streets. China’s race-based containment policies have strained China-Africa ties.

Photo by muffinn/Flickr

Some Muslims in India have also felt targeted by rumors that they are spreading the coronavirus, with documented cases of attacks online and on the streets. Muslims constitute about 200 million of India’s 1.3 billion people. With Hindu nationalism on the rise, some Muslims fear the coronavirus is just the latest excuse for Islamophobia.

Boats of Rohingya refugees, a minority group who hail from Myanmar, were adrift as sea for nearly two months, when they were refused entry into Malaysia. More than one million Rohingya refugees live in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Some desperate refugees have boarded rickets boats in search for a better life in Malaysia. Several such boats, filled with staring refugees, were turned away by Malaysia at the end of April, citing fears of coronavirus. Most recently, more than 80 human rights groups called on the Malaysian Prime Minister to address hate speech and violent threats made against Rohingya refugees in the country.

Rohingya refugees are not the only displaced people facing discrimination in the midst of the worldwide pandemic. U.S. President Donald Trump has also cracked down on asylum, using the coronavirus as a pretext to limit legal immigration, a policy he has long championed.

Just as coronavirus doesn’t only attack one religious group, coronavirus-related hate speech also attacks many faiths. According to an annual report on anti-Semitism around the world, published by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University, coronavirus related hate speech against Jewish people have been promoted by "extreme rightists, ultra-conservative Christian circles, Islamists, and to a minor extent by the far-left.”

When governments and NGOs should be focused on working together to fight the coronavirus, instead some have been the victims or perpetrators of conspiracy theories and politics, feeding hateful racism and bigotry.

But as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres so rightfully said: “COVID-19 does not care who we are, where we live, what we believe or about any other distinction. We need every ounce of solidarity to tackle it together. Yet the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering.”

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