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COVID-19 Pandemic and Racism in the United States and India, Economic & Political Weekly

Economic & Political Weekly
Vol. 55, Issue No. 23, 06 Jun, 2020

The novel coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in many ways. Among the several implications for humanity, is the lesser talked-about issue of racism that has inherent psychological impacts. This article examines the rise of racial discrimination in the two largest democracies of the world—the United States and India. It argues that the stigmatisation of a certain race triggers racial division and hinders the collective fight against the pandemic, and can be as deadly and dangerous to humanity as the virus itself.

The author thanks the anonymous reviewer for their comments.

The novel coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) pandemic changed the world in many ways. Of the several implications for humanity, the issues of health concerns and the rapid decline of economy has undoubtedly taken centre stage. With many countries declaring lockdowns and/or social distancing due to the virus outbreak, there were several instances of racial discrimination across the world, including verbal and physical attacks. While the virus itself had given tremendous hardships to humanity, the stigmatisation of a certain people was quite unfortunate. This article analyses racial discrimination in the two largest democracies of the world—the United States (US) and India—following the outbreak of COVID-19 virus in late 2019, and argues that the stigmatisation of a certain people triggers inherent racial division and hinders the collective fight against the pandemic. It also argues that racism can be as deadly and dangerous to humanity as the virus itself.

The US and India are exa­mined in this article for three reasons. First, the US and India are the two largest democracies of the world grappling with racism. Second, there were evidence of increased racial discrimi­nation and stigmatisation in the two countries following the outbreak of the virus. Third, both countries are diversely populated, having a sizeable population of the racial group in question—the Mongoloid. This article, however, does not mean to suggest that there were/are no other forms of discrimination towards other racial or ethnic groups in the two countries. For example, in the US, there are different levels or forms of racism against the blacks and the Hispanic population. Similarly, in India, there are several forms of discrimination against people of lower castes, particularly the Dalits, or even anti-Muslim sentiment across the country following the alleged spread of the virus from an Islamic seminary (Gettleman et al 2020). There were also reports of racism against the Chinese and other Asians elsewhere around the world. This article examines only the spike of racism or discrimination against the Chinese and other Asians of the same Mongoloid group in the US and in India following the outbreak of coronavirus in December 2019 and the spread of the disease across the globe (Page et al 2020). Moreover, the analysis and argument of this article is based on data available from news media reports, commentaries, statements from government leaders and/or civil society organisations, as well as the author’s own observations.

Racism

Camara Phyllis Jones in her work “Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale” presents a theoretical framework for understanding racism at three different levels—institutionalised racism, personally mediated racism, and internalised racism. Institutionalised racism is manifested in societies where there are different levels of access to goods, services, and opportunities, and it may sometimes be legalised or institution­alised and become an “inherited disadvantage.” Personally mediated racism is the assumption about others in terms of their abilities, motives, intentions based on their race, and it “can be intentional as well as unintentional, and it includes acts of commission as well as acts of omission.” Internalised racism is the acceptance of negative messages by the stigmatised race and it “involves accepting limitations to one’s own full huma­nity, including one’s spectrum of dreams, one’s right to self-determination, and one’s range of allowable self-expressions” (Jones 2000: 1212–13).

There are also situations where individuals may deny racism or the practice of it, but acknowledge that some or many members of the group or even the entire group do not have the same tolerance towards other ethnic or racial groups. And the act of denials can also come in different forms—explicit, implicit or pre-emptive. Some may intentionally or unintentionally engage in racial slurs but deny that there are any negative connotations to them. Some others may also use racial inferences without directly targeting any particular individual or individuals (Dijk 1992). Similarly, there can be “aversive racism” in which the racists recognise and believe in egalitarianism and do not want to be seen as prejudiced, and therefore, would not engage in discriminatory activities when things are too obvious to themselves and others (Dovidio and Gaertner 2000, 2004). The concepts of “personally mediated racism” and “aversive racism” are helpful in understanding coronavirus-related racism in the US and India.

The novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was officially reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) country office in China on 31 December 2019. The WHO declared the virus as a public health emergency of international concern on 30 January 2020 (WHO 2020). China confirmed its first coronavirus death on 11 January 2020. China imposed strict lockdown on 23 January 2020 in Wuhan. And on 5 February 2020, the Diamond Princess cruise ship carrying more than 3,600 passengers was quarantined off the coast of Yokohama in Japan. On 11 February 2020, the WHO renamed the novel coronavirus as COVID-19, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first case of suspected local transmission in the US on 26 February 2020. Subsequently, the first death was reported in the US on 29 February (Schumaker 2020). At the time of writing this article, the cause of the virus was still something the scientists were working hard to understand, especially how the virus passed on from animals to human beings. Stephen Turner, head of the department of microbiology at Monash University, said that most likely the virus originated from bats (Readfearn 2020).

Outbreak in the United States

The US confirmed the first coronavirus case on 21 January 2020 and subsequently on 29 January, the White House formed a task force to help monitor and contain the spread of the disease. Just a day after on 30 January, the US confirmed its first case of human-to-human transmission. Then on 31 January, the US government announced that it would deny entry to any foreign national who had visited China in the last 14 days, which the Chinese government accused Washington of spreading fear by enforcing travel restrictions. A 60-year-old American national died in Wuhan on 6 February. The National Institutes of Health had begun a clinical trial of the virus on 25 February, which was followed by President Donald Trump nominating Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the government’s response to the pandemic on 26 February. On 11 March, the Trump administration restricted travel from Europe for 30 days in an attempt to fight against the virus, and on 13 March the government declared a national emergency to free up $50 billion to combat the virus. On 18 March, Trump signed a coronavirus relief package, including free testing and paid emergency leave. On 27 March, Trump signed a stimulus package of $2 trillion, which was one of the most expensive relief measures passed in the history of the US Congress. And on 3 April, the Trump administration recommended all Americans to wear face masks, which it previously said was not necessary for people who were not sick (CNN Editorial Research 2020).

‘Chinese Virus’ and Racism

With the surge in coronavirus cases in the US, racism against the people of Chinese-descent and other Asians had also increased. The use of the term “Chinese virus” by Trump had apparently contri­buted to racial attacks against the Asian Americans. Instead of trying to stop racial discrimination against the Chinese and other Asian Americans, Trump defended the use of the term “Chinese virus” during his White House press briefing on 18 March. Though health officials advised against using the term which had caused dozens of biases against the Chinese Americans, Trump defended his position and said, “It’s not racist at all” and that he wanted “to be accurate” because the virus “comes from China.” The White House justified the President’s remarks by saying that a number of past pandemics were also known by their places of origin or where they were believed to have originated, such as the Spanish Flu, West Nile Virus, Zika and Ebola. Not only the president but his close associates, including the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the term “Wuhan virus” (Mangan 2020).

Many had condemned Trump’s use and defence of the term “Chinese virus.” On 10 March, the director of the CDC, Robert Redfield, said, “It’s absolutely wrong and inappropriate to call this the Chinese coronavirus” (Tucker 2020). The executive director of WHO’s emergencies programme, Mike Ryan, said:

Viruses know no borders and they don’t care about your ethnicity, the color of your skin or how much money you have in the bank … So it’s really important we be careful in the language we use lest it lead to the profiling of individuals associated with the virus.

Former Vice President Joe Biden had earlier tweeted in response to Trump that “A wall won’t stop a virus. Racism won’t stop a virus. Do your job” (Mangan 2020). Charissa Cheah, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland—Baltimore County—who had conducted a survey on coronavirus-related discrimination, said,

[Trump is] essentially throwing his American citizens or residents of Chinese and Asian descent under the bus’ by ignoring the consequences of the language he uses … He’s fueling these anti-Chinese sentiments among Americans … not caring that the people who will truly suffer the most are Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans, his citizens whom he’s supposed to protect. (Chiu 2020)

A China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Scott Kennedy, said,

The use of this term is not only corrosive vis-à-vis a global audience, including here at home, it is also fueling a narrative in China about a broader American hatred and fear of not just the Chinese Communist Party but of China and Chinese people in general. (Rogers et al 2020)

Though Trump and his administration officials denied any intention or inclination of racism, many were apparently emboldened by the administration officials’ remarks which were manifested in several verbal and physical attacks across the country (Chiu 2020). On 9 March 2020, a 26-year-old Chinese woman, Yuanyuan Zhu, was shouted at and spat on by a middle-aged man because she was a Chinese American or because of being from the Mongoloid racial group. Other Asian Americans from Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar and other countries also came under threat either because they were thought to be Chinese Americans or because they could not be differentiated from the Chinese. During the third week alone in March 2020, nearly two dozen Asian Americans who were interviewed, said that they were afraid of going out for grocery shopping or travelling alone in subways or buses (Tavernise and Oppel Jr 2020). Jeni Erbes-Chan, an architect in New York, was shouted at on the subway on 10 March by a man saying: “You people brought the virus. Go back to China” (Loffman 2020). In one incident in the state of Texas, racial discrimination against the Chinese and other Asian Americans turned into hate crime and violence when a man on 14 March stabbed and attempted to murder an Asian American family including a two-year-old girl and a six-year-old because the attacker thought that “the family was Chinese, and infecting people with coronavirus” (Melendez 2020).

Another report by Stop AAPI Hate documented that in the third week alone in March, there were over 650 cases of discrimination against Asian Americans. One among them was a Korean American, Kari from Seattle, Washington state. While she was in the grocery store in mid-March, another shopper told her child that she could not be in the same line because she would get them sick. A week later, Kari said a cashier at a grocery store refused to check her out. Another report released by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON) and Chinese for Affirmative Action said that there were several instances of Asian Americans being coughed at or spat on, and told to leave stores. Many were also refused pick-up by Uber and Lyft transportation services. There were also several instances of online and verbal harassment and physical violence or assault against the Asian Americans. Earlier data collected by Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, showed a widespread occurrence of anti-Asian incidents. The data, which was based on media reports, revealed that during 28 January to 24 February when the first coronavirus cases were reported in the US, there were more than 1,000 cases of racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans. The president and executive director of the civil rights group called Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), John C Yang, believed that the rise in racial discrimination against Asian Americans was encouraged and incited by Trump’s tweet on 16 March calling it a “Chinese virus.” Yang said,

We have seen people associate the virus with Chinese people as they are assaulting them. It’s outrageous for any elected official to have been dismissive when the evidence of racist attacks continues to climb. Words matter and they often hold more weight when spoken by our politicians. (Kandil 2020)

Racism against People from the North East

Racism against people from this part of the country is not a new phenomenon, but the spread of COVID-19 had once again flared up racial discrimination and stigmatisation of people from the
region. The discrimination of people from the North East is a combination of both ignorance and intolerance towards people of another racial group (Kipgen 2020). Duncan McDuie-Ra in his work “‘Is India Racist?’ Murder, Migration and Mary Kom” writes that

North East communities are frequently cast as being outside the boundaries of the Indian nation owing to their membership of a segment of the population identified by a racialised physicality. The appearance of someone with so-called “chinky” features marks them as peripheral, and external to the hierarchies of caste, region and language that make up an established order—far from a just order to be sure—within the mainstream population; this is a position that some challenge and others embrace. Furthermore, there is the connotation of a connection to China, a connotation protestors used to punctuate their outrage. (McDuie-Ra 2015: 308)

Some scholars posit that people from the North East India are “non-recognized and misrecognized, mirrored back by the wider Indian society as foreigners, hailing from such places as China, Nepal, Thailand, or Japan and on a visit to India, or as ‘lesser Indians’ rather than as equal citizens” (Wouters and Subba 2013). One scholar from the North East in his work “North-east and Chinky: Countenances of Racism in India” writes that “There is a propensity amongst many fellow Indians outside the regions to perceive the regions to be dominated by people with Mongoloid features. Many Indians from outside the regions deridingly associate Mongoloid Indians with Chinese” (Samson 2017: 24). Another writer from the region says that racism faced by people from North East in mainland India is “much more in-your-face, because of observed ethnic/racial appearance in the form of different skin colour and looks, language, cultural barriers and alien-sounding, difficult-to-pronounce names” (Ngaihte 2014: 15). While recognising the existence of several instances and/or forms of racial discrimination and attacks on people of the North East India, this article discusses the spike of racism in the context of the coronavirus outbreak.

Coronavirus and Racism

There were several instances of racial attacks on people from the North East in different parts of India following the outbreak of the coronavirus. On 22 March 2020, while a 25-year-old woman, Rameshwori, from Manipur went out for grocery shopping in Delhi, she was racially abused. Describing the incident, the woman said,

It was quite a deliberate attack. He slowed down near me, spat at my face, called me corona and left. I was too shocked to react … he didn’t just spit on me because I’m a woman. I was attacked because I’m a north-eastern woman from Manipur with Mongoloid features.

Two days earlier on 20 March, another woman from Manipur was called “gandi virus” meaning dirty virus by a group of men in Delhi. The victim’s sister said they were often asked by the autorickshaw drivers whether they were from China and were infected with the virus, and they had to convince the drivers first that they are also Indians before they were being allowed the ride (Bose 2020).

A report titled “Coronavirus Pandemic: India’s Mongoloid Looking People Face Upsurge of Racism” by Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG), a non-governmental organisation, that was released on 26 March 2020 documented that racial discrimination took place in some popular restaurants and reputed educational institutions, including the Kirori Mal College of University of Delhi, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), an institution which is responsible for preparing syllabus for students up to Grade XII under the Central Board of Secondary Education. The report also stated that racial discrimination was observed across the country, including places like Gujarat, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, West Bengal, and Maharashtra. Suhas Chakma of RRAG said,

Apart from being called “Corona”, “Chinese”, “Chinki”, India’s Mongoloid looking people were spat on and called “coronavirus”, forcibly quarantined despite showing no COVID-19 symptoms because of their looks, denied entry into the apartment complex, forced to leave the apartment, threatened with eviction from their apartment, forced to leave a restaurant to make others comfortable, none wanting to share transport with them. (Karmakar 2020)

In another incident, two shopkeepers in Hyderabad were denied entry at a supermarket because they looked like foreigners. The two were denied entry even after showing a government-issued identity cards proving that they were Indians (Pandey 2020). A 24-year-old woman in Kolkata was reportedly refused treatment for a urinary tract infection (UTI) because workers at two hospitals insisted that she had to undergo COVID-19 treatment first before getting treatment for the UTI. She was finally treated at the third hospital but ended up at an isolation ward in the second hospital after a first information report was filed against her to the police allegedly for running away from COVID-19 screening. The woman, who was from Sikkim from the North East, said, “I tried to explain to them that I had no symptoms … I felt like I was being treated like a dog. I was hungry and in pain so I asked the nurse for medicine, but she just ignored me.” The doctor who came to check on her asked if she was from China. And on 28 March, a 20-year-old student from Nagaland and some of his friends were denied entry in a grocery shop because the staff thought they were foreigners because of their “Mongoloid” features (Colney 2020). A group of students from the North East—Manipur and Nagaland—were also allegedly attacked and beaten in Kolkata on 22 March by their neighbours demanding that they leave their rented house. As they left their house, the attackers shouted “Go corona go” (Sirur 2020).

Response from the Leaders

Some may argue that the spike of racism against the Chinese and other Asian Americans in the US was largely due to the use of racially charged language by Trump and some of his administration officials and supporters. While there was some truth behind this argument, the President himself clarified that his use of the term “Chinese virus” did not have any racist intent or inclination. In fact, following the spike of racial attacks across the country, Trump on 23 March 2020 tweeted that the spread of coronavirus in the US was not the fault of Asian Americans. Trump’s tweet said,

It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States, and all around the world … They are amazing people, and the spreading of the Virus (…) is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form. They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER! (Vazquez 2020)

Nevertheless, there was sufficient empirical evidence that Trump’s use of language had contributed to and/or incited racial discrimination against the Chinese and other Asian Americans of the Mongoloid features.

Empirical evidence had also suggested that while there were people who held prejudice against people from the north-eastern states, the Government of India did not endorse or support such a view. In fact, following several instances of racial remarks against the people of North East, Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and Minister of State in the Ministry of Minority Affairs, on 18 March 2020 raised the issue with the concerned people in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The complaint of Rijiju, who himself belongs to Arunachal Pradesh from the North East, had led to the government issuing advisory on 23 March to all states and union territories to take action on individuals or groups who engage in discriminatory activities, including racial harassment with regard to COVID-19. The MHA advisory said, “It has come to the notice of the Ministry that people from the North East have been facing harassment after the occurrence of COVID-19 in the country. There have been cases where people from the North east, including athletes and sportspersons, have been harassed by linking them to COVID-19. This is racially discriminatory, inconvenient and painful to them” (Hindu 2020).

Conclusions

While there have been cases of racism in both the US and India for quite a long time, the outbreak of coronavirus has rekindled it. The spread of the virus led to the stigmatisation of a certain minority group of people because of the origin of the virus. However, there was no sufficient or strong evidence to suggest that the kinds of racism in both countries were of institutionalised discrimination. They fitted more into personally mediated racism as put forward by Jones, or “aversive racism” theorised by Dovidio and Gaertner. There were individuals, groups of people, or many people across the society who held a xenophobic view towards people with Mongoloid features just because the novel coronavirus was known to have originated in Wuhan, China. But, not all forms of racism were explicit and straightforward. Sometimes, people engaged or expressed racism in more subtle ways, such as posting messages on social networking sites without involving directly in verbal or physical attacks (Mani 2020). However, racism in both countries were neither endorsed nor supported formally or officially by Washington and Delhi. But undoubtedly, the stigmatisation of one particular group of people had caused a huge psychological impact and deep racial division within the society.

The authorities, including the law enforcements of both countries had taken certain measures to deal with the surge of racism, such as accepting a complaint or making an arrest (Scroll 2020). But, the continued incidents were the proof that such steps were not enough to deter or stop racial attacks (Campbell and Ellerbeck 2020). It was evident that more robust and comprehensive steps were necessary to address the larger issue of racism, including but not limited to more awareness campaign and sensitisation of the virus and the importance of unity in racial diversity, implementation of zero tolerance policy against racism, and stricter actions against the perpetrators, including heavy monetary fine and jail terms or both.

If strong measures are not implemented, the virus of racism will inherently remain in the mindsets of people, which can be a threat to peace, stability and solidarity of the society and the larger humanity.

Leaders should be more sensitive with the kinds of language they use when it comes to matters that can hurt the sentiments of people, especially in diverse and democratic societies like the US and India. Leaders and the general public who stigmatise people of a certain race should realise that viruses such as COVID-19 do not have race, nationality, or boundary.

The stigmatisation of a certain race triggers racial division and hinders the collective fight against the pandemic. Racism and racial attacks can be equally deadly and dangerous to humanity as much as the virus itself. In a globalised world, it needs the cooperation and collective efforts of individuals, civil society groups, governments and international institutions to fight against the invisible deadly viruses, including the coronavirus. It is unlikely that coronavirus or COVID-19 will be the last pandemic that humanity will have to face.

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