Racism in the Time of Corona

Ever since COVID-19, or more commonly Coronavirus, first appeared or came to be public knowledge we have witnessed a racialisation of the viral outbreak. Once the origin of the outbreak was determined to be in Wuhan province of China and speculations spread about the virus strain having jumped to humans from bats or pangolins a barrage of attacks ensued towards people of China and other South-Asian countries. The President of United States went on to term COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”.

Although the actual route of cross-species transmission of Coronavirus is yet to be established but people of the region are blamed for introducing the virus through their choice of food which include non-farm animals. The dominant perceptions from the West characterise the people and their food practices as unhygienic, weird, or in colonial vocabulary uncivilised. Needless to say the onslaught of sinophobia and racism aimed at the Chinese and other Asian ethnicities follow from deep seated prejudices which in the garb of a pandemic panic effectively get manifested in denigrating the people. It is likely that the Coronavirus got transferred to humans from a host animal carrier through some form of contact, but attributing it as a result of unhygienic food practice comes with racial connotations. The fact is viruses are continuously evolving organisms and through genetic mutations jump from one host species to another, sometimes without affecting a carrier. Not to delegitmise concerns for genuine health hazards through contamination or need for greater governmental transparency for timely response, but consider the 2009 H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic which spread from Mexico and US causing deaths of 151,700-575,400 people worldwide would rarely receive similar diatribe on food and hygiene standards. It is therefore important to identify the axels of power, ideology, and cultural superiority within criticisms.

When it comes to racial prejudices we find similar notions operating in India as well towards certain tribal and ethnic minority groups. In fact we have recently witnessed a spike in cases of racial targeting and harassment in the country over Coronavirus fear. On the receiving end of this racism are the natives of Northeastern states, and also those from Darjeeling and Ladakh. The issue was raised in the Parliament on 17th March by Tapir Gao (MP, Arunachal Pradesh) seeking an intervention from the Central government to issue a “strong advisory” against the ongoing discrimination.

Social vs Racial Distancing

The COVID-19 outbreak has prompted several health organisations and government agencies to issue health advisories and preventive measures for people. One of the prescribed measures is to practice social distancing, which implies limiting situations requiring physical proximity with other people, especially in public spaces. But even before the idea of social distancing was floated in India as a safeguard people from particular regions bearing Mongoloid features were already facing a form of distancing within the ‘Mainland’ region, with suspicions of them being potential ‘Corona carrier’.

Although medically prudent and a necessary step to arrest the infection rate the practice of social distancing acquires different connotations for different people. Ever since the Coronavirus panic became widespread the racial profiling of people from the Northeastern states has become all the more common and intimidating. They are viewed with suspicion and questioned about their origin. The general intolerance for their food has scaled up in its contempt. The situation has worsened to the extent that every time people step out of their homes they risk being subjected to racism.

Imagine being denied entry into housing societies, or declined taxi rides, or being forced out of public transportation by people for the fear that you might contaminate their space, all because of your appearance. A new term “Corona” has already been added to the list of racial slurs people face on the streets. These experiences have led to a condition of dread of public places within the Northeastern natives residing in Mainland states. It has forced them into self-confinement, limiting their mobility and interaction. One can frequently hear someone say how their primary fear of going out at this moment is not the virus but indeed the racism prevalent in the air. The ordinariness of everyday racism faced by Northeastern natives is exceeded by its pervasiveness, demonstrated by the fact that it cuts across caste, class, gender, and religion. Apart from the more explicit forms of discrimination there are subtle and casual forms which are more ambiguous than direct attacks and leave one in a state of self-doubt or helpless trepidation. However, it is also true that a form of racial distancing has always existed in India and within its social fabric, which becomes more apparent under duress and paranoiac situations.

Northeasterners 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” constitutes of several ethno-linguistic groups (Mon-Khmer, Tibeto-Burman, Tai) who become the racial Others in Mainland India due to perceived physical differences, where their bodies and identities are often misrepresented or imposed with different socio-political constructions. As a result, the ‘Mongolian’ with their doubtful nationality, indecipherable languages, and strange food preferences have to bear the burden of correcting, informing, and assimilating themselves and the others 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 are 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?

Despite a prevalence of racial discrimination faced by Northeastern natives there is hardly any discussion on the issue of racism in mainstream domains. It is not surprising that there is limited engagement with the issue within mainstream media platforms, and even when there is it has often failed in the representation of people and their lives. The lack of proper representation comes from the absence of a popular discourse on racialised identities in India. On one hand the difficulty in building a discourse owes to the problem of non-recognition of race and racism as a worthy concern. On the other hand it fails to find much attention due to multiplicity and intersectionality of discrimination in our society wherein discussions on racism find scant audience. 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 eradicated. Unfortunately, unless a serious mishap or racial hate crime occurs which may take away the life of a young Loitam Richard or Nido Tania racism rarely gets adequate public response. Even when it comes to seeking justice there is little legal recourse available in India against racial discrimination since there are no specific laws to deal with it. At the same time Indian jurisprudence rarely responds to deep seated social issues like racism. In fact whatever biases are prevalent in society may seep into an institution and dictate its processes.

It is definitely an impracticable goal, but 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 our lives. However, as a starter it is essential to have more discussions and acquaint people to the abominable realities of race and racism in India. At the same time cultural particularity and plurality must be acknowledged and endorsed.

Presently, the COVID-19 pandemic can teach us a few things on disaster preparedness. It is a reminder why we need a robust healthcare system and more cooperation between government agencies. We must cope with the pandemic collectively and along with health precautions we must exercise sensitivity towards people as well. Interestingly, there has not been a single confirmed case of COVID-19 infection in any of the Northeastern states till date despite all the fear and panic which has catalysed racism against its native populations. Although, one is hopeful that it is not for the lack of sufficient tests conducted.

Update – On 24th March one case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Manipur

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Jit Hazarika Written by:

Jit Hazarika is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai.

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