Stop stigmatizing racialized communities during the pandemic

More on stigmatization without recognizing the underlying socioeconomic circumstances but with little recognition that culture can also play a role:

Pandemics create fear — this is not new. 

The coronavirus disease has highlighted how fear and anxieties have driven racism and xenophobia as countries have dealt with outbreaks. The instinct to blame the unknown or the “outsider” is a pervasive outcome of outbreaks. Unfortunately, the blaming of immigrant communities for the rise in infections is causing more harm.

Anyone can be infected by COVID-19; in this sense the virus does not discriminate. However, it is clear that race and culture are significant factors in who gets scrutinized and who does not. We have seen some political leaders and decision-makers engage in misinformation to escape blame for how they handled the crisis.

Blaming the outsider and “othering” infectious diseases is not a new phenomenon. The “Ebola” virus and the “Spanish” influenza were both named after geographic locations. We even saw the U.S. president unsuccessfully attempt to brand COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” or “China virus.” Words from leadership matter — Asian Americans in the United States have reported a surge in racially motivated hate crimes.

The ramifications of villainizing marginalized groups for causing or spreading the infection is significant. Data compiled by a coalition of groups shows over 600 anti-Asian incidents since the pandemic began. A third of these incidents involved assault or physical violence — and so are considered hate crimes. Contrast this with previous StatsCan data from 2016-2018, which show roughly 60 hate incidents annually targeting persons of East and South East Asian backgrounds — the data is clear.

The rise of hate crimes is not the only issue. A study by the World Health Organization noted that the stigmatization is a “hidden burden” of disease and it is costly to patients as well as societies. Studies have shown that the SARS epidemic “generated feelings of extreme vulnerability, uncertainty and threat to life during its initial outbreak phase.” This is why I am so concerned about a recent interview that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney gave where he stated large family gatherings in Calgary’s South Asian community were to blame for the rapid spread of the virus. This type of rhetoric is not helpful, and only instills fear.

Since that interview, South Asians in Calgary have demanded an apology, and brought to light other compounding factors that have increased cases in their community. Many have service jobs and do not have the luxury of working from home. As front-line workers, they are our nurses, taxi drivers, grocery store clerks and warehouse workers.

In contrast to Kenney, when reports were circulating that South Asians in Brampton were holding large gatherings for Diwali and increasing virus case loads, Mayor Patrick Brown — also a Conservative — did not blame the entire South Asian community. Instead, he reminded us that many in the community are in fact our unsung heroes, as essential workers that keeping the local economy going. This is not to discount that some break the rules, but demonizing an entire community is false and harmful.

Our leaders need to be conscious of their impact on public narrative and behaviour, and do better. As we conduct more testing in targeted communities such as Thorncliffe that have a large population of precarious workers, we will see more cases — and we must ensure stigmatization does not occur. In these difficult times it is important to remain vigilant and ensure our leaders do not use their platform to incite hysteria.

How can we do better? Recently the City of Toronto made some recommendations to help address the disparity in COVID-19 cases among racialized and lower-income Torontonians. One of the most important recommendations is to communicate sociodemographic data in non-stigmatizing ways. This needs to be applied by all government officials and health care providers — especially as the city focuses on priority neighbourhoods and potential “hot spots.”

Improving our communication on information and issues related to COVID-19 is vital. As the vaccine is rolled out, we are already seeing misinformation being spread online. By tapping into all forms of communication — including multilingual outreach — and working closely with local community members, we can ensure an inclusive approach in fighting this virus.

Source: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2020/12/13/stop-stigmatizing-racialized-communities-during-the-pandemic.html

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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