Select Page

Nothing can ever justify racism and discrimination. But in the past couple of weeks, we have seen wanton discrimination raise its ugly head in New Zealand in different contexts – as a politician’s habitual ranting against one community and as a result of coronavirus against another.

The unrepentant politician’s latest antic has been condemned and doesn’t deserve repetition; however, the racism that the Asian community has faced in the wake of the Covid-19 (coronavirus) outbreak exposes the discriminatory attitudes that seem to be bubbling underneath the pleasantness Kiwi society is known for the world over.

The World Health Organisation has officially declared Covid-19 as a pandemic this week as the virus sweeps past 100 nations with more than 4000 dead. While the panic may well be justified given its rapid spread, the dynamic nature of the facts and information that is coming at us and the knowledge that there is no vaccine yet, nothing can justify discrimination based on irrationality.

Asian-looking people who might never even have visited China in their lifetimes have been callously discriminated against in New Zealand – asked to leave restaurants, get off buses and trains by drivers and co-passengers and have had rude comments hurled at them.

Just because Covid-19 was first reported from China does not mean every Asian-looking person in New Zealand should be avoided. Patronage of otherwise popular Asian establishments in downtown Auckland is down to zilch, according to reports. Whether Italian restaurants will face similar treatment from panicked patrons since Italy is one of the most severely affected countries remains to be seen.

The virus of disinformation

Experts would have us believe that we live in the safest, healthiest, most peaceful and prosperous age today than our ancestors have ever lived in. Technology makes it possible for anyone anywhere to instantly get in touch with anyone else wherever else in the world. We have information – and equally both disinformation and misinformation – scrolling incessantly on digital screens at the speed of light.

But the veneer of civility that this great age of peace and plenty filled with the marvels of technology has brought us is exactly that – a mere veneer that peels off for the most trivial of reasons. The scenes that were played out at supermarkets in New Zealand and Australia following the coronavirus outbreak, where people scuffled and came to blows over dwindling stocks of toilet paper, has shown our civilisation to be as fragile as two ply paper.

Both disinformation and misinformation have a most incendiary capacity to spread irrational fears like wildfire. Since the Covid-19 outbreak and its rapid spread in early February, menacing conspiracy theories (biological warfare), baseless rumours (engineered to gain dominance over certain countries), the imminence of an apocalypse (a deadly secret experiment gone bad) have all run amok on social media platforms.

It is such social media driven rumours that give a dangerous dimension to what ought to be genuine concerns for the spread of the Covid-19 virus, thereby creating utterly unnecessary irrational phobias against ethnicities, races and nationalities.

Governments fight back

Governments have to necessarily err on the side of caution and in the absence of any precedence for such a quick and all-pervasive spread of any virus in modern times, no government can be too careful.

Many including the New Zealand government have put in place speedy measures to contain the spread of the virus and have established an excellent information system with frequent media briefings – in a manner that is carefully designed to avoid any reason to create panic, which is indeed the need of the hour.

Health authorities’ and governments’ repeated warnings and advisories on avoiding crowded places as measures of containment are practical and rational given the circumstances ­– but an overreaction to them is certainly not. Irrational fears propelled by ill-informed, irresponsible and patently false social media posts targeting certain countries and races, completely irrationally, must be condemned.

Covid-19 is a very serious matter. No two ways about that. The many hitherto unknown aspects of how the virus actually spreads and its suspected potential of being able to spread through entire communities are worrisome. No matter what, but the response to it has to be rational and measured. No two ways about that either.

Fear factor

By far the biggest symptom of coronavirus is completely nonmedical – fear, propelled by irrational rumour mongering, half-truths and any number of theories half-baked at the University of WhatsApp and other platforms of its ilk. Rumour mills and disinformation have worked overtime to manufacture fear.

It is this fear-driven irrational panic-buying that led people to stockpile toilet paper, noodles, hand sanitisers and other household items fisticuffing with co-shoppers and even neighbours as though the world was in for a long, fearsome nuclear winter.

When fear sets in, rationality is the first casualty: When one stockpiles an essential like disinfectants and denies neighbours and other community members those products, the risk of them spreading it because of the lack of resources artificially created by the stockpiling, is increased many times over. This simple practical thought seems to escape panic buyers in the face of irrational fear.

But as the weeks go by and data from all over the world is collated and analysed, a picture has emerged as to who are the major at-risk groups, what are the things to do and to avoid and what might be the way forward both in the short and middle terms.

Everyone needs to be sensible and responsible about our outlook toward Covid-19 for the good of all. Because we are all in it together.

First appeared in the 7 March edition of The Indian Weekender.