In Times of COVID-19, Social Unity Gets Tested


Fear is testing many communities.


we are not at war against other humans, but “we are at war” against a novel coronavirus, as stated by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, in his nation-wide speech on 16th March. Covid-19 continues to threaten lives across the globe as seen by the pandemic sweeping up daily headlines tracking record high numbers of cases daily. As with any war, groups are pitted against each other, politicians try to find scapegoats to flee responsibility for a dire situation, and people do everything to provide for their family in fear of what’s to come next. Racism, panic-buying, fear-mongering, and the recent lack of regard for social distancing has eroded social unity among many communities. Such unfortunate behavior has revealed a darker side of human character, one where an individual’s well-being takes precedence over the common good. 

Racism 

Suspected to originate from an exotic animal market in Wuhan, China, the virus was first labelled as the “Wuhan virus”. The use of such geographic labels was publicly reinforced by the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and has effectively slandered the Chinese while perpetuating a stigma against East Asian delicacies[1]. John Cornyn, a Republican senator from Texas, went on to say that, “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that … that’s why China has been a source of a lot of these viruses,”[2]. Insensitive language from public figures encourage the association of the virus with a specific ethnicity, which is not only untrue and immoral but also intensifies polarization in times of crisis when people need to rally around institutions and each other. 

President Trump is at the center of responsibility for promoting racism as he too called Covid-19 “the Chinese virus”. When criticised on his racist remark, Trump clarified that he intended to be factual in pinpointing the location of the coronavirus outbreak. “It comes from China, that’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate,” Trump said[3]. In response, author Celeste Ng tweeted that, “Asians worldwide are facing actual harassment because of people who insist on calling the illness the Chinese virus”[4].

Such racial scapegoating arises from fear. And in associating the corona virus with Asian ethnicity, US politicians point people of Asian ethnicity as targets of xenophobia.  Yet they are unable to discern that the virus doesn’t know race or colour. 

In London, a 23 year-old Singaporean student, Jonathan Mok, took to Facebook to highlight an attack made on him on Oxford Street. He was ambushed by four men who kicked and punched him, telling him that they didn’t want “[his]coronavirus in [their] country”. The racially aggravated assault was detailed on his social media page where he explains that with the backdrop of coronavirus, people have become bolder in expounding on their hatred for another race. “Racism has changed its form and shape through the years and it is once again rearing its ugly head in light of the COVID-19 crisis[5].”

In Australia, comedian Ken Cheng coins the term “coronaracism” to criticize the racially aggravated attacks on the Chinese Diaspora around the world[6]. Asians making up over 5% of the country’s population (1.2 mil), are uncomfortable with the unwanted attention being directed at them amid the rapid spread of coronavirus in the country. Covid-19 now serves to be an awkward reminder that prejudice still lurks beneath the multi-ethnic fabric of Australian society[7]

Panic-Buying 

One of the startling images that created waves of shock online, were the emptied supermarket shelves around the world. As people readied themselves for quarantines and self-isolation, grocery stores were stripped off of staples such as toilet paper, rice, meat, bread and milk. Such a dramatic shift in consumer behavour is given the name of ‘panic-buying’[8]. Leaders around the world have tried their best in assuaging the public’s fears that there will be no shortage in groceries, instead urging them to stop hoarding. Stockpiling is a consequence of increasing work from home and quarantine measures globally. But most importantly, it is once again driven by fear. Fear of the declining goods as everyone rushes to gather as much food and toilet paper for their households. Fear that the greed of others would mean insufficient goods left for themselves. Thus, this results in throwing the social good out of the window and cat-fighting over whatever they can get their hands on. 

Unwarranted concerns over personal food security have morphed the consumer behaviour into a selfish and entitled one. Mr Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) commented that there was no supply issue. However, stockpiling or bulk buying could contribute to world food inflation as demand overly exceeds during such a period[9]. Pictures of the empty shelves around the world have sparked outrage and distasteful response on social media. 

What glaringly stands out is the aggressive nature of these shoppers in getting what they need. Fights have broken out, trolleys piled high, mass hysteria as people gather more toilet paper than necessary for backup purposes. Now that Covid-19 is being seen as a real threat, the behavioural response has been to safeguard one’s survival amidst the ongoing lockdowns across the world. Consumers are using this time to gain control over their goods and in some sense gain control over this situation and their anxiety. Experts say that such disproportionate buying methods may disrupt the supply chain as the product supply, though not running out, is also not unlimited[10]

Dangers of downplaying the virus

As seen from the delayed initial response by the United States, which has steeply increased to have more than 205,000 cases, President Trump has been held responsible for negligence in poorly handling the coronavirus spread in his country. Trump’s attitude was overly optimistic, his speeches were largely dismissive, and at times he pontificated fake news to mollify the public and lessen the severity of the virus. The New York Times drew some interesting inconsistencies between what Trumps has said and what the medical experts predicted about Covid-19[11].

Trump gave false reasons such as stating that, There’s a theory that, in April, when it gets warm — historically, that has been able to kill the virus,” a claim quickly discredited by the medical experts. Trump sent confusing messages to the public claiming, “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear,” comparing the virus to a fantasy instead of giving the public hard facts. Infamous for his false declaration on the incoming vaccines (March 2nd), this too was eagerly countered by the doctors, as a vaccine would take a longer time to develop and could not be rushed. Whenever Trump assured the situation was under control, experts would briskly offer an opposite assessment. Such misaligned a pattern of political communication has left people uneducated on the actual measures and thus, regressed to fear to guide their actions.

Other examples of downplaying stem from individual ignorance and irresponsible disregard in following the needed measures of social distancing. Infamous for his line, “If I get corona, I get corona,” a beachgoer by the name of Brady Sluder, gained widespread attention for his defiance of social distancing guidelines[12]. His statement drew heavy backlash for its insensitivity about the consequences of his selfish actions on the wider community. The 22 year old, was seen by many as an exemplification of a now decreasing reckless majority, who showed little seriousness to practising social distancing. 

Packed bars and restaurants are another symbol of casual dismissiveness of the public health warnings of social distancing. Despite such warnings being constantly echoed by the experts, many are stubbornly adamant in continuing their daily activities and meeting people as usual. This nonchalant attitude is especially dangerous in countries where diagnostic testing is heavily limited and cases will likely go undetected. Undetected cases will perpetuate a false sense of normalcy and will enhance the inability to grasp the gravity of the situation. 

Solidarity Goes Online

While this article mainly focused on the darker sides of the spread of Covid-19, it would be an incomplete account of how people are dealing with this pandemic. Yes, such outbreaks reveal a less impressive side of human nature, however, as the situation worsens, there has been growing solidarity among people. This is especially true when a huge population of the world is locked in their homes with a shared empathy for one another. There is a heartwarming celebration of our medical practitioners who stay behind in hospitals to save lives, janitors who sanitise public spaces, delivery men who are the lifeline of a locked-down city and other front-line heroes, putting themselves in risk to keep their cities moving. And now the world is coming together to show these heroes some gratitude. 

Social media has once again become a powerhouse for news, communication and entertainment for people. Many are urging their friends and families to stay at home and are sharing their day-to-day routines on stories online. Playing games and challenging others, watching tik tok videos and creating their own, and reminding their friends to practice good hand hygiene- all in an attempt to stay preoccupied and in a healthy state of mind. While such tough times have exposed quite a few unattractive traits of humans, many realise that they are all stuck in the same boat, and there is a conscious effort to stay connected and empowered in these quarantined times.

Written by Shriya Sharma. Edited by Jeppe Damberg, Anoushka Thakra

References


[1} US, China accuse each other of coronavirus fear-mongering. (2020, Mar 17). Retrieved from The Straits Times: https://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/us-china-accuse-each-other-of-coronavirus-fear-mongering

[2] Aratani, L. (2020, March 24). Coughing while Asian’: living in fear as racism feeds off coronavirus panic. Retrieved from The Guardian : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/coronavirus-us-asian-americans-racism

[3] Forgey, Q. (2020, March 18). Trump on ‘Chinese virus’ label: ‘It’s not racist at all’. Retrieved from Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/18/trump-pandemic-drumbeat-coronavirus-13539

[4] Ng, C. (2020, March 19).

[5] Mok, J. (2020, March 3).

[6] Cheng, K. (2020).

[7] Power, J. (2020, February 7). Chinese-Australians feel fear and loathing as coronavirus panic sparks racist incidents. Retrieved from South China Morning Post: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/health-environment/article/3049515/chinese-australians-feel-fear-and-loathing-coronaviru
[8] Bekiempis, V. (2020, March 23). ‘Could you buy a little less, please?’: panic-buying disrupts food distribution. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/23/us-coronavirus-panic-buying-food

[9] Coronavirus: Panic buying, lockdowns may drive world food inflation. (2020, March 21). Retrieved from The Straits Times: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/coronavirus-panic-buying-lockdowns-may-drive-world-food-inflation

[10] El-Terk, N. (2020, March 13). Toilet paper, canned food: What explains coronavirus panic buying. Retrieved from Aljazeera: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/toilet-paper-canned-food-explains-coronavirus-panic-buying-200313083341035.html

[11] Qiu, L., Marsh, B., & Huang, J. (2020, March 18). The President vs. the Experts: How Trump Played Down the Coronavirus. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/18/us/trump-coronavirus-statements-timeline.html
[12] Ortiz, A. (2020, March 24). Man Who Said, ‘If I Get Corona, I Get Corona,’ Apologizes . Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/us/coronavirus-brady-sluder-spring-break.html?algo=top_conversion&fellback=false&imp_id=540044667&imp_id=264579312&action=click&module=Most%20Popular&pgtype=Homepage

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