Recently there has been a spike in Coronavirus related racism and harassment in India with people from the Northeastern region and those from Darjeeling and Ladakh being on the receiving end.
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On 20th March, a group of girls from Nagaland working in Gujarat were randomly picked up and quarantined by government officials based on a random complaint despite them having no symptoms of COVID-19. Another girl from Manipur was publicly spat on and hurled abuses in the middle of New Delhi. Following which, the Delhi Police has registered a case under section 509 of the Indian Penal Code against a man who allegedly spat on a woman belonging to Manipur and called her “Corona” in Vijay Nagar area of north Delhi last night. Apart from direct physical harassment there is also racial targeting on social media. The incidents have risen up as India gears up for social distancing amid the corona outbreak.
The symbolic social distancing
Even before the Indian government enforced social distancing and self-quarantine as safety measures, people from the aforementioned regions were already facing a form of distancing within the ‘Mainland’ part of the country. Suspected to be from China because of their Mongoloid appearance they regularly face racial profiling, which can manifest into entry restrictions in housing societies, and declined public transportation, for the fear that one might be carrying the virus. A new term “Corona” has been added to the list of racial slurs people face on the streets.
There have also been reports where people students from Nagaland were asked to vacate their house in Kolkata and were called “corona virus”. It is equally distressing when such incidents arouse in a city that takes pride in its culture.
The general intolerance for their food has also scaled up in its contempt. People stepping out of their houses risk being the target of Coronavirus racism. These experiences have forced people into self-confinement along with the physical isolation. Although medically prudent and a necessary step to tackle the virus the idea of social distancing acquires different connotations for different people. It has catalysed the racial distance which existed even before Coronavirus.
How it trickled down?
Even as the Coronavirus pandemic throws up questions on critical preparedness and infrastructures of public healthcare systems worldwide, it has opened the gate for ideological tussle between governments and deployed racial targeting of Asian ethnicities. Most countries were caught off-guard or underprepared to deal with the health crisis when the COVID-19 spread out of China after it was reported in December 2019. While the Chinese administration gets rebuked for attempting to cover up information on the virus disadvantaging other counties in its containment, President Donald Trump went on to the extent of terming Coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”. Although he tried to justify his comments as not being racist there is a need to acknowledge the underlying racialisation of the pandemic. This selective profiling of the virus has proliferated and affected the Indian psyche by localizing the blame game to the people who resemble the mongoloid ethnicity.
New diseases in the past had been popularly named after markers of their sources. But certain associations can attract stigma or ostracisation of people. For example, during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic the naming of the new disease as “Swine flu” or “Mexican flu” led to tricky politics between Israel and Mexico due to stigmatising effects the names had on people of the respective countries. The WHO in order to “minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people” issued a best practices policy in 2015 for scientific naming of new diseases. Nonetheless, diseases can acquire names as per convenience of usage or from popular representations. Unfortunately, representation of Coronavirus as Chinese has led to racism towards Asian ethnic people worldwide.
Racialisation of Coronavirus
The racialisation of COVID-19 began soon after news of the outbreak in China’s Wuhan province emerged. Although the actual source or route of cross-species transmission of the virus is yet to be established, scientific speculations about bats or pangolins led to widespread criticism of Chinese and other Asian ethnicities. They are blamed for introducing the virus through their food practices. China’s ‘wet markets’ selling non-farm animals attracted international attention compelling the Chinese government to issue a ban on sale and consumption of wildlife. However, attributing the outbreak to food practices when there has been no evidence to link the virus with food have only reinforced racially based misconceptions.
As a fact viruses are naturally occurring organisms and through genetic mutations often jump from one host species to another, sometimes without affecting a carrier. Not to delegitimize concerns for genuine health hazards through contamination or need for greater governmental transparency for timely response, but a diatribe on food and hygiene standards highlights the axles of power, ideology, and cultural superiority operating within a society.
Instead of bringing people together the pandemic has expanded pre-existing cultural divides. It has exposed sinophobia and racial prejudices that often characterise people and their food practices in South-Asia as unhygienic, or in colonial vocabulary uncivilised. Even in India there is a prevalence of similar notions amongst a section of people proclaiming Coronavirus as a karma effect of people’s food choices. These perspectives also represent racial prejudices prevalent towards the tribal and ethnic minority groups living in the Northeastern region of the country.
Northeastern-ers as racial Others
The idea of race is not constructed on physicality alone, but appearance can supply important visual cues for racial determination and categorization of people from which follow social behavior based on racialised identities. Northeastern region of India, part of the sub-Himalayan topography, or as a colonial would describe the “Mongolian fringe” consisting of several ethno-linguistic groups (Mon-Khmer, Tibeto-Burman, Tai). Due to physical and cultural differences the people become racialised and ghettoised in the Mainland where their bodies and identities are often misrepresented or imposed with different socio-political constructions. As a result, the Northeastern natives with their “doubtful” nationality, indecipherable languages, and strange food preferences have to bear the burden to correct and educate others while assimilating themselves through an amenable posturing which eventually earns them a spot in the national imagination. However, this is not to conflate socio-cultural difference with racial distance. The socio-cultural uniqueness of the various ethnic groups in the Northeast is a point of significance and is sustained by the people themselves. But racial distance follows from a notion of inferiority or superiority of a race and associated cultures. As a process it seeks to transform the cultural world and representations of the racial Other into a more dominable form. This includes changing the way people eat, dress, speak, or think.
Racism. So now what?
There is limited discussion on the issue of racism in mainstream domains. The primary reason for absence of a popular discourse on racialised identities in India is non-recognition of race and racism as a serious concern. Additionally, discussions on racism find scant audience due to multiplicity and intersectionality of inequalities in society. Meanwhile there continues to exist a trope of cultural stereotypes and racial constructions employed within social interactions and mainstream representations.
It is needless to say that there is no immediate cure available for the virus of racism, and it will continue to persist long after COVID-19 has been neutralised. Unless the society and its constituent structures are overhauled and the idea of Difference is accorded its rightful significance and equality is restored to all identities racism will continue to find its way into people’s lives. However, as a starter it is essential to have more discussions and acquaint people to the abominable realities of race and racism. At the same time cultural particularity and plurality must be acknowledged and endorsed. Presently, the COVID-19 pandemic calls for more attention on public healthcare and a need to adopt a people sensitive approach to tackle the crisis.
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