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Source: Massey University

New Zealand is not immune to COVID-19 racism, Professor Stephen Croucher says.

By Professor Stephen Croucher

While fears over the virus and its health implications are widespread, COVID-19 related prejudice and racism have also skyrocketed globally.

As of July 2020, the World Health Organisation declared more than 11 million confirmed cases and more than 500,000 deaths in more than 210 nations.

In the United States, Europe, India and Russia, for example, discrimination, harassment, racial slurs, and physical attacks on individuals who “look” Asian has increased rapidly, as “Asians” and China have been blamed by many governments, media outlets and individuals for the spread of the virus.

New Zealand is not immune to this, with reports of Chinese and Asians experiencing racism and xenophobia due to COVID-19. While research shows racism and xenophobia in New Zealand toward Chinese and Asians may not be as high as in the US or other European nations, such racism and xenophobia is still troubling.

In the US in particular, hashtags such as #Kungflu and #Wuhanvirus are trending, partly due to these terms being popularised by President Donald Trump.

The US president used the term “kung-flu” as he aired pent-up grievances about the coronavirus at a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The spread of Trump’s rhetoric on social media using such terms/hashtags is negatively impacting Asian communities, and these impacts are unlikely to stop. They have enflamed anti-Asian sentiments, with numerous acts of violence being reported in many nations.

While anti-Asian sentiment has grown online during the COVID-19 pandemic, other messages such as #IAmNotaVirus have been promoted to counter such racism and prejudice.

In New Zealand, messages such as “Be Kind” have been largely promoted by the government to encourage all New Zealanders to be kind to one another, and to not blame others for this virus.

As humans we do tend to point fingers at someone and blame when we are uncertain or scared. There are countless examples in history where marginalised groups are blamed for a crisis.

Nations around the world have responded to the virus differently – typically, nations with stronger medical infrastructures and more centralised responses have fared better in terms of infection rates.

Authoritarian leaders such as Trump, Modi, Putin, and Bolsonaro have played off social fissures in their respective nations and actively engaged in blaming different groups. This rhetoric of finger-pointing is dangerous.

In such a crisis situation – and let’s face it, this pandemic is an international crisis – we need to come together. Attributing blame to a group for spreading a virus is not going to get us any closer to a vaccine, stop the virus, help the economy, or do much of anything positive.

In New Zealand there have been cases of discrimination, prejudice and racism toward Asians linked to COVID-19.

However, increasingly there is more and more discussion on social media, news, among our political leaders, and among average New Zealanders about how returning New Zealanders are to blame for COVID-19.

For example, National MP Hamish Walker when responding to the government’s plan to look into using hotels in Queenstown and Dunedin for managed isolation and quarantine facilities said, “These people are possibly heading to Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown from India, Pakistan and Korea.” To single out these three Asian nations ignores the fact that the largest number of returning New Zealanders are coming from Australia. Walker’s defence of his statement and denial it was racist does not cancel out the inherent racism of his message.

Yes, returning New Zealanders must respect quarantine rules (not jump fences, etc.). If a person violates quarantine rules they should be prosecuted, as it is their responsibility to follow quarantine rules. However, our politicians and average New Zealanders also have responsibilities. Our politicians can’t lower themselves to playing the blame game.

As New Zealand continues to work toward eradicating COVID-19, we will have more people returning, and eventually (hopefully) our borders will open up to new people. We will have more cases of COVID-19 at the borders and those individuals will need to go into quarantine.

What good does it do to hear a MP blame another MP or the prime minister for X or Y, or to blame a person for having COVID-19? It really does no good except to as political theatre. Instead, our political leaders need to rally together and support one another, New Zealand, development of a vaccine, our struggling businesses.

New Zealanders also have responsibilities. First, we need to keep being kind to one another. This crisis is far from over, and the more we can keep up that kind spirit the better.

Second, we need to recognise that no one group is responsible for COVID-19; it’s a virus. If people violate quarantine rules, yes, we can be upset at those individuals for breaking the law. However, don’t blame a collective group for something.

Third, hold our political leaders accountable for their choices and their words. To respond to this virus and this crisis we need to not only listen to our scientific and medical experts, but we need to maintain our collective spirit as New Zealanders.

Kia kaha.

Professor Stephen Croucher is a Professor is Head of the School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, Massey University. This article was first published in Stuff

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