Urvashi Kamat - Advisor, Quality Education Program
Picture Credit: Forbes
The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted lives around the globe. Every country has put in place some form of restriction on physical contact in the form of social distancing, health precautions etc, which has not only impacted daily life but has had adverse economic repercussions. Apart from this, the number of cases of racism has also increased.
Racism has long existed in the world and diseases and epidemics have often been used as a reason to rationalise xenophobia. For example, HIV was blamed on Haitian Americans, while Swine Flu on the Mexican Americans and the 1918 Influenza on Germans. But relatively less attention has been given to the rise of discrimination and racism against Asian communities and other minorities around the world as a result of Covid-19. Using the example of the UK and Ireland, this article discusses the presence of racism in these two countries, and also shares two personal incidents of students who faced the same.
Racism in the UK
Hate crimes against the Chinese ethnic group have increased significantly after the spread of the virus. As reported by Trinity News, “The lack of specific knowledge on the coronavirus has led to the development of a culture of fear, which in turn has enabled the development of irrational and often-racist beliefs.”
In the UK, hate crimes against the Chinese increased steadily, where 267 cases were recorded, till April 2020. These included harassment, assault, robberies and criminal damage. When 412 individuals were surveyed during the pandemic, three out of ten reported that they had either experienced or witnessed discrimination at the workplace and 37% claimed they faced racial prejudice outside their office. According to the data by the London’s Metropolitan Police, the number of racially aggravated cases towards Asians in 2020 from February to March increased to 166, while in 2019, during the same period, were 66.
Many Chinese have been living in the UK for most of their lives, and now feel like outsiders. These Chinese immigrants state that they are facing different forms of racism, either being punched, or coughed at and spat on the streets, or even face verbal abuse. This started taking place, since the first case was reported in China. UK is said to have the most number of Chinese students, and several students have experienced attacks as a result of discrimination. Jonathan Mok, a student, faced racial claims such as, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country”. He was also brutally punched, which led his nose to bleed. He was Singaporean and not Chinese, and was simply targeted because of his colour and appearance.
The once bustling Chinatown in London has turned to be extremely quiet now, with a drop in business. The restaurants are not as busy as usual. A manager said that it is not because of the weather or anything else, but people are believing in fake news and rumours and are afraid to eat Asian food.
A 23-year-old Singaporean student was allegedly assaulted while walking along a street in London last Monday (24 February) in a racially motivated attack prompted by the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Picture Credit: Yahoo News
Racism in Ireland
It was reported that a Chinese student who was studying in Dublin, faced verbal abuse by three male teenagers, and told him that he brought the virus to Ireland. A young girl, who was travelling in Dublin, also had a similar experience where she was spat on, punched at, and even had a group of girls telling her “you brought the virus here”. In Dublin, at an Asian restaurant, several employees had visited their homes in Taiwan and Korea in the month of January, and on their return, they had been removed from the roster for two weeks as a “precautionary measure”. Thus demonstrating how having false anxiety can lead to discriminatory behaviour. In Ireland, it is not only the Asian community experiencing this, but also others. As described by thejournel.ie, a family in Dundalk was forced to flee their home as a result of experiencing multiple attacks on the mother and the son, and the son was singled out because he was dark skinned.
Below are two incidents of students from Trinity College Dublin, who faced the same.
1. Reuben Lin, a student from Singapore, studying at Trinity College experienced verbal abuse. He was at Connally Station in Dublin, returning home after a day of hiking at Howth. Reuben said, “A group of young kids between 11- 14 years of age, were on the same pathway as me. One of them (a young boy) pushed another (a young girl) into my path so that she would "bump" into me. I moved out of the way and the young boy shouted YOU'RE A CORONAVIRUS to me.” Reuben also claimed that he thought there was nothing that could have been done, as they were really young and said that this was not his first racist encounter in Dublin.
2. Swapnil Sah, another student from Nainital, India, studying at Trinity College Dublin, faced the same. He was robbed and attacked when walking on the main road, listening to music. He said, “a group of 5-6 boys who looked under 18, tried to snatch my headphones, and when I attempted to get them back, I was surrounded by them who then hit me and kicked my face, I was severely bruised and was bleeding”. He said that he then received help from a passer-by. He reported the incident and was shocked as he did not expect this to take place in Ireland.
Swapnil also claims that he has now seen a different side of Ireland.
It is clear from the above that ethnic minorities are viewed as alien in western countries.
President of the U.S.A has been called out several times for calling COVID-19 the 'Chinese Virus' openly. Here is one of his tweets.
What Leaders have to say:
UK leaders such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, disapproved Chinese xenophobia, and stood against it. Xiaoji Zhu, the president of UK Society of Chinese Lawyers, stated that racism is like an old disease. She advised that individuals should report the same and said, only when the statistics are significant, will the government prepare for the appropriate measure. While in Ireland, Leo Varadkar declared that, “we are in this together” and that this should not be dependent on one’s origin. When interviewed by the Times, Mr. He, the Chinese Ambassador, stated that he had heard of racism against the Chinese community, but then said that he believed they were “isolated incidents”. This act of discrimination is unfounded.
As mentioned above, leaders believed these to be “isolated incidents'', and said, that only when the numbers are significant can legal action be taken. But why do we need to wait for so long to make a change? It is evident that these were not isolated incidents and there is enough evidence for the same as mentioned above. There have been numerous incidents in both the UK and Ireland. It is only because of this attitude that racism is on the rise. Considering that individuals have faced prejudice in the workplace, it becomes the duty of the managers to set out expectations from the staff, and share appropriate guidelines for workplace behaviour.
Reuben did not take action, as these children were minors, while Swapnil, still went to the police, who informed him that they would not be in a position to do much, as they were juveniles.
Picture Credit: AHRC
What is important is that policies and laws need to be implemented. The UK has a Race Relations Act 1965. According to which, racial discrimination is banned in public places and made the propaganda of hatred on ‘race, colour, or national or ethnic origins’ an offence. It is clear that these acts required serious attention not just for the Chinese but against other ethnic groups as well.
In Ireland, under Section 258 of the Children Act 2001, an offence by an individual under the age of 18 can be erased if certain conditions are met, such as, if the offence was committed before the child reached 18, or if the culprit is not required to be tried at Central Criminal Court; for murder or rape, and if three years have gone by since committing the offence and the child has not committed any other offense in that time. Ireland does have a specific legislation that deals specifically with hate crime either. However, a hate motive can be taken into account for a criminal offense. I believe that these laws need to be evaluated once again. In the several cases, the police, instead of being complacent, the guards could have tracked down the perpetrator and at least given a warning.
Although racism has long existed in our world, it becomes the duty of our generation to mitigate the same. And this is something that mainstream media does not speak about. It should not matter if one is black, white, brown or any color or gay, or straight or Christian or Muslim or anything, our generation should fight for equality, regardless of one’s race, religion or sexual orientation.
Urvashi competed her undergraduate studies from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, majoring in English Literature. After which she went on to pursue her master’s in the same field and simultaneously worked for two years. Currently she is competing her master’s in Management from Trinity College Dublin. She hopes to contribute to start-ups and SMEs.