Fear and loathing in the time of COVID-19

Coronavirus and the problematic perception of migrants as health threats.

Allebéplein, Overtoomse Veld, Amsterdam West. Image credit Peter Teunissen via Flickr CC.

Earlier this March, a video surfaced of a Greek coastguard boat shooting at and attempting to capsize a small raft of migrants coming from Syria through Turkey. This incident, like many others, faded into the background in the midst of rising fear and panic surrounding migration at European borders, and the perceived threat of migrants bringing the coronavirus. As the virus outbreaks continue to spread across Europe, alt-right politicians have, predictably, blamed migrants. Even though there is no evidence linking COVID-19 cases in Italy to migrants coming from Africa, the former Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, continues to make claims that coronavirus can be attributed to loose border policies. The current pandemic provides the alt-right with an easy, albeit erroneous excuse for fueling anti-migrant politics.

Furthermore, coronavirus-related racist attacks, largely against people of Asian descent, have taken place in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and the UK. A Korean woman in the Hague reported a man who tried to punch her on her bike, while yelling out “Chinese.” Another man described being followed by a group of teenagers yelling “corona Asian.” In Germany, the South Korean embassy warned its citizens about possible incidents of racial violence after a young Chinese woman was badly beaten by two women in Berlin.

These cases reflect the far-right imagination of migrants and minorities as threats to the health of western countries. This association made by the right between migrants and the threat of disease isn’t new; it has been integrated into right-wing rhetoric throughout recent political campaigns. The idea of pollution or contamination is often used with regard to things that are seen as “other,” or out of place. In her study, Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote about perceptions of hygiene and cleanliness, making explicit the ways that societies reinforce group identity through the concepts of cleanliness and pollution. According to Douglas, dirt is perceived as any “matter out of place”, and pollution is used to describe things that are seen as not fitting into their environments. In the far-right rhetoric, the notion of migrants, as well as minority groups, as “out of place” contributes to the view of these groups as potentially dangerous in a public health context.

Xenophobic biases have long been embedded in the way that healthcare is administered in many European countries. When I went for my regular gynecology screening in the Netherlands this past January, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire and give the nationalities of anyone I had sexual contact with in the six months prior to the appointment. When I asked why the nationalities were important, I was informed by my doctor that people from some parts of the world (i.e. the global South) posed a higher risk for STIs than people from Europe and North America. These “high-risk” regions included the entire continents of Africa and South America. The blanket assumption by healthcare governing bodies that all people with a specific nationality are a health threat is more rooted in racial prejudices than in public health science. While it is common for public health interventions to target specific populations, it makes little sense, strategically, to categorize all people of non-western nationalities as high-risk. The supposed intention of these surveys is to mitigate “risk,” yet they actually create new risks for those who have to live with this stigma in an increasingly nationalist society.

Reactions to disease outbreaks are important to analyze because they bring to light society’s underlying biases and show how we respond to the things that we fear. Unfortunately, when faced with outbreaks, the responses of many European governments and healthcare institutions appear to be more characterized by a determination to blame migrants and minorities than a desire to care for those in need.

In the case of COVID-19, stigmatizing migrants provides a false sense of security, because unlike our governments, the virus will not discriminate between migrants and nationals. What we need now is not panic or fear, but solidarity, empathy, and cooperation as we work to mitigate the harm caused by this disease. Our greatest threat, in the coming months, will not be the virus itself but the fear that causes us to turn on each other.

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