Two men walking on a street with white masks.
The cocktail of fake news, misinformation and actual virulence accompanying the coronavirus is fueling racist tendencies. Photo courtesy: Macau Photo Agency/Unsplash


Racism and Fake News Abound: Coronavirus Is Bringing out the Worst in People

Speak to each other.

After a tiring day of studying, 22-year-old Mamonti Nunisa wanted some fresh air. Around 6 pm, she rode her white scooty to a market about five minutes away from her student housing in Delhi University (DU). As Nunisa parked her scooty in front of a street food vendor, she heard someone speaking to her. “First, he whistled at me, and then asked, ‘Are you from China?’” Nunisa told Re:Set. “Then he called me ‘coronavirus,’ and told me to go leave and take the virus with me.”

The student economy around DU has birthed small markets surrounding the sprawling campuses, with eateries and hookah parlours galore. This mini-boom is a product of students, like Nunisa, who internally migrate to the national capital for what is perceived as better education.

“I had read about racist instances in DU, but my father believed Delhi to be better than Manipur,” Nunisa told Re:Set. “The coronavirus is just an excuse, and this incident isn’t even the worst one. One time, a north Indian classmate asked me if ‘normal Indians’ like her needed a visa to visit the country’s northeast. This might not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s an example of how we’re othered everyday.”

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Sadly, Nunisa isn’t the only one being subjected to this recent wave of public xenophobia. Chinese Canadians are facing it in North America. Patients are ‘joking’ about not shaking their Asian-Australian doctor’s hand. French Asians are screaming ‘I’m not a virus.’ It has even reached Philadelphia in the United States, where not even a single case of coronavirus has been found.

“When the American government imposed travel bans to and from China, it legitimized an idea that we have seen time and again with virus outbreaks like SARS,” Gayatri Sapru, a social anthropology consultant, told Re:Set. “That it’s these ‘people’ who are dangerous.” In relation to Nunisa’s experience in a metropolitan city like New Delhi, Sapru believes this is a result of internalized racism.  “There’s nothing technical about it. It’s xenophobia born out of ignorance, especially because the rest of India doesn’t try to understand the northeast,” she said.

“I still don’t know how swine flu spreads.”

Apart from those at the receiving end of racial attacks, people who physiologically test positive for virus outbreaks suffer a different kind of othering — one of callousness. Carolina D’Almeida was 12-years-old when she tested positive for H1N1, or swine flu in 2010 while living in Sharjah, UAE. She was taken out of school immediately, and placed in a home-made quarantine zone. She shared a room with her brother, so she was given separate utensils, cutlery and toiletries. Everything she had touched was thrown out of the house. “I still don’t know how swine flu spreads. My parents didn’t know,” D’Almeida told Re:Set.

Four girls smiling in their school uniforms. One of them had a bout with Swine Flu soon after the picture was taken, and eventuallly made a full recovery.

Carolina D’Almeida (second from left) was diagnosed with H1N1 and placed in a home-made quarantine zone. Photo courtesy: Carolina D’Almeida

“Many times Indians ‘wing’ medical emergencies, so I was made to drink turmeric milk, eat fruits and polenta, and asked to rest,” she reflected. “It shouldn’t have been my luck and over-the-counter medicines getting me through my illness.” Compassion, or the lack of it, comes in various forms, and people like D’Almeida’s parents are casualties in the never-ending misinformation cycle which now accompanies virus outbreaks.

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Yesterday, a social media rumour in China led to residents flocking to supermarkets to stock up on toilet paper. In the Indian state of Kerala, three people were arrested for spreading misinformation while in Malaysia, 12 people were taken into custody for the same reason. Disinformation about cures such as drinking bleach, and YouTubers claiming governments are suppressing information are running amok. This trickles down to people on the street, especially in a country like India, where CureCancerBy_True_Worship was trending on World Cancer Day, and WhatsApp forwards and fake news have resulted in deaths of many. “For example, there is very little confirmation about the source of the break, yet people have decided that it comes from animal markets from China because the Chinese eat bats. It reinforces what they already want to believe,” Sapru said.

A medical advisory about coronavirus in the middle of the hospital, with people walking by.

Hospitals in India are issuing public notices about coronavirus to plug the information vacuum regarding the disease. Photo courtesy: (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

When this cocktail of fake news, misinformation and actual virulence reaches a hospital, it creates anxiety for patients, their families, and doctors alike.

Dr. Om Srivastava, an infection control consultant for various hospitals in Mumbai, is currently treating a patient who has been diagnosed with H1N1. He started treating infectious viruses in 2009, and in that time has observed that there is anxiety that trickles down from the patient to their family members, and to other patients in the hospital owing to the communicability of the virus.

“The aspect of a physical illness like this is compounded by the mental aspect.”

“The only thing that works is talking to all the stakeholders, and to keep communicating with them on a regular basis, because the amount of misinformation is immense,” he told Re:Set. “I’ve seen instances where patients are told to leave someone’s space, and are emotionally affected by it. The aspect of a physical illness like this is compounded by the mental aspect.”

The relationship between emotional health and physical recovery is well documented. It has been 11 years since the swine flu pandemic, nearly 20 since the SARS outbreak, yet the impulsive response to virus outbreaks remains the hamster wheel of misinformation and prejudice. Even technological inventions, like social media platforms, are made to bend to this absurdist reality. The only course of action, according to Dr. Srivastava, is communication. “The burden of prejudice rests upon the person who is frightened based on information which may be correct or not. The only way to power through is speaking to them.”

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Racism and Fake News Abound: Coronavirus Is Bringing out the Worst in People