Three weeks ago – which, in coronavirus time seems an eternity – when many still thought the virus was mainly a problem in China, a group of Ukrainian villagers stoned a bus carrying Ukrainian evacuees from China to their place of quarantine. They were terrified that the evacuees would bring the new plague into their villages, and they responded with violence.
The violence and intolerance unleashed by this new plague has only intensified since then. Increasingly, we are in the grip not just of a severe medical crisis, but also a social panic in which fears about the virus are activating racism and anti-immigrant sentiment and leading to oppressive violence.
It’s essential to recognize that voluntary “social distancing” measures like avoiding large gatherings and self-quarantining oneself as much as possible when experiencing any possible COVID-19 symptoms are desperately urgent in this moment, in order to flatten the coronavirus curve and slow the spread of the disease enough to prevent a situation in which our medical systems are overwhelmed beyond capacity and forced to choose which patients to try to save, as is currently occurring in Italy.
But instead of a situation in which all people who have the ability to do so engage in such social distancing measures, we are instead seeing a situation where many carry on as normal but channel their fears into racist attacks.
Last week, in London, a Singaporean student was beaten in the center of the metropolis by teenage attackers who hurled racial epithets at him and blamed Asians for the new disease.
This incident was just one of many discussed during a March 12 meeting about racism and coronavirus at the London School of Hygiene. Panelists also described a Chinese student in the northern English town of Sheffield being attacked in late January for wearing a mask; Chinese students in Birmingham and Cardiff being similarly assaulted; an Asian medical consultant being punched to the ground by assailants shouting about coronavirus; and a Thai tax consultant being attacked by a mob in London shouting about coronavirus.
Around the world, as the pandemic spreads, the terror associated with this unknown disease has become a petri dish for the rise of intolerance and a broader epidemic of violence.
Rather than working together to craft a truly global mitigation strategy for slowing the spread of the disease, many responses have taken a distinctly nationalist flavor, focusing more on militarizing borders than on effective measures for preventing the spread of the virus.
Austrian troops patrol mountain passes to prevent Italians from entering their country. Denmark recently announced bans on incoming flights from parts of Italy. It seems only a matter of time – and probably not much time at that – before Germany, France and Spain also impose massive limits on free movement. The Schengen Accord, the crown jewel of the European Union experiment, which has allowed free movement across much of Europe for a generation, is dying in the face of the emergency.
On Wednesday, without notifying European governments in advance, Trump took the unprecedented, panicked action of shutting all citizens of the Schengen Zone within the EU out of the United States for a month. His speech, full of half-truths and falsehoods, talked of a “foreign virus” invading the U.S., and of Europeans, afraid to restrict travel in the early days of the epidemic, now importing clusters of new outbreaks into America. In response, markets around the world went into freefall – increasing the likelihood that the pandemic will trigger an economic calamity, and increasing the sense of fear and rage against “outsiders” as daily lives are brutally disrupted.
By the day, more and more countries are desperately walling themselves off as they attempt to limit the inroads of this new virus among their populations. Instead of a coordinated global effort to support cross-border movement in the ways that best support public health, we now have armed soldiers checking medical passes on borders. And in some countries, the pandemic has led to a starkly increased militarization of daily life, like in China, where police and other law enforcement are enforcing mandatory quarantines of tens of millions of people, and in Iran, where panicked leaders are threatening those who hoard face masks with the death penalty.
Certainly, public health experts have urged widespread shutdowns to corral the spreading contagion. Cancellations and shutdowns will definitely be necessary to contain the virus’s spread over the coming weeks and months. But some strands of panic associated with these dramatic societal changes come with huge costs that go beyond the economic devastation being visited on entire regions and countries. Increasingly, fear is leading to violence, some of it state-sanctioned, other outside of the control of authorities.
At the London School of Hygiene conference, one of the speakers, Professor Leesa Lin, talked of “those who are ill” being “afraid of wearing a mask, or delaying testing, due to the fear of being discriminated against” and of facing violence by fearful community members.
In the U.S., the media has reported extensively on anti-Asian responses, especially on social media, to the outbreak. Physical assaults have been reported against Asian American riders on the New York City subways and elsewhere.
The world is barely two months into a pandemic. Most epidemiologists predict it will get far, far worse before it peaks. And already, extraordinary stresses on social order are being seen around the world. People are panic-buying food, medical supplies, even toilet paper; the tourism industry is cratering in a way it didn’t even after the 9/11 attacks in 2001; schools and universities, sports events and conferences are being canceled or moved online in one country after the next; and hospital systems in the most affected countries are already stretched to breaking point.
Public health officials and politicians are racing to try to devise strategies, unprecedented in their constriction of freedom of movement, to limit the human toll from the disease. But after the immediate crisis has passed – which, one day it will – out of the wreckage we are all going to have to rebuild civil societies and relationships fractured by the crisis in ways that, only months ago, would have seemed unthinkable.
Down the line, regaining our civil rights and freedoms at the back end of a pandemic will be a huge struggle. As ever, grassroots activism will be essential in pushing for the liberties that should be guaranteed to all.