Epidemics are apocalyptic and socially divisive; they penalize the poor and often the innocent. All sections of the society face hard choices and their responses to the epidemic are shaped by the interpretation of the disease in question. Epidemics are fatal and they kill horribly and indiscriminately. Covid19 is easily communicable and the impacts of it are being felt across the world and in all domains of our lives from physical and mental to job security and family life. Existing inequalities are more visible than ever, with the burden of the crisis falling on some much more than others. Pandemics affect individuals differently, with policy responses potentially worsening existing inequalities and discrimination for the marginalized groups.
When the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global alert on March 12, 2020, the COVID19 had already crossed a dozen of national borders. The disease had surfaced during December 2019 in Wuhan, the sprawling capital of Central China’s Hubei province, a commercial centre divided by the Yangtze and Han rivers. In these despondent times of fear and uncertainty, shortages of food and medical resources, the Covid19 pandemic has also been accompanied by numerous instances of racism across the world against the east and south East Asians. Fears about an epidemic and blaming a particular segment of a population for its spread reflect wider fears about social disorders than the real increase in the disease. With the outbreak of Covid19, the medical researchers are toiling hard to find a vaccine, the doctors are trying hard to treat the already infected, and the journalists are scrambling to inform the public of the danger.
Ever since Covid19 appeared in public knowledge, a racist approach to the epidemic is witnessed in various parts of the world. The President of the United States of America, Mr Donald Trump went on to term the Novel coronavirus as the ‘Chinese virus’. In India, the brunt has been borne by mostly people from the Northeast, Darjeeling and Ladakh. There are many media reports and personal narratives of people from the Northeast facing getting targeted and harassed in many parts of the country. Different conspiracy theories have flooded the social media regarding patient zero and why and how it got transmitted, although the actual cross-species transmission is yet to be confirmed. Rumours such as the virus got transmitted to a human body by coming in contact with a host animal carrier and so on are doing the rounds. In the popular Indian Upper Caste psyche, the already available theories about ‘weird’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘unhygienic’, ‘wild’ and ‘very Chinese’ food habits of the communities from the Northeast are enough to create quick racial profiling and targeting of the Northeasterners. We have seen various rumours, widespread conspiracy theories and social media forward messages regarding the food habits of the inhabitants of Northeast India being viral in the Indian social mediascapes.
Perennial, subtle and overt Indian racism
To contextualize these popular Indian explanations of Covid19, the racial and new-colonial perceptions regarding the indigenous peoples of the Northeast and their food habits resonate with the colonial image of Northeast India as a place inhabited by ‘savage tribes’ with bizarre food habits, harbouring deadly diseases (Arnold 2008). Apart from refreshing the vivid colonial memory of racist profiling at play in the making of colonial medicine and modern epidemics, this portrayal of Covid_19 makes it’s evident that popular knowledge can be shaped by racist assumptions and can authoritatively affirm perceptions that the people from North East India are ‘others’ and are different in their food habits, lifestyles and physical features from the rest of the people of India.
The racial discrimination against the people of Northeast has once again come to the fore with the outbreak of COVID-19, although it doesn’t mean that it did not happen earlier. There are many instances where the people are outrightly called Corona or Chinese or virus instead of the usual prejudiced terms like chinky, momo or chowmein. Covid9 doesn’t have a caste, religion, race, gender, and nationality. It is a threat to humanity and at the time of building ‘social solidarity’ against this global pandemic increasing racial slurs and abuses to this section of the people are highly shameful and condemnable. In mainland India, they are always socially ostracized for not being “Indian’ enough. And the times of Corona left no stone unturned to make the matter worse for the people from North East India with multiple reports of verbal and physical abuse and racial profiling from the different parts of the country. The government and the health organizations have come up with many advisories that imply certain preventive measures like social distancing and limiting physical contact among people in public places. With this, the people from a particular region of India, with similar Mongoloid features like the Chinese, are being targeted as the potential carrier of the virus. they are viewed with the utmost suspicion and are denied various services. On17 the march this matter was initiated by Tapir Gao, MP of Arunachal Pradesh to look into the matter of racial discrimination and come up with a strong advisory.
Students and other people from the Northeast have repeatedly said that they have been called with terms like ‘Chinese’, ‘Corona’ and many other racial slurs. In many cases when the offenders were confronted, they used to run away laughing at the accusations and cover up their faces to show the hysterical fear. Many were attacked during the Holi festival in India and there have been instances when the people with mongoloid features have been spat at by people from the moving vehicles. Besides these, the families with mongoloid features were denied entry to the shops and were denied service by the taxis in mainland India. In many places, the delivery boys were threatened to not accept orders from such people and to not take orders from their restaurants. Imagine being denied accommodation in Delhi and asked to vacate the rented house as the owner thinks they are originally from China. And there is no dearth of instances when the people from this community were forced to get out of the public transport as they might communicate the disease to the others. The raging hysteria of this bizarre behaviour against the people from Northeast India has led to a condition of fear psychosis among the people from this region. They are confining themselves wherever they are spending days of insecurity and fear. Racial behaviour against them is not new but at present with the lockdown and the impossibility to move to one’s homeland, they are in an even more vulnerable position. The only novelty of response on the face of Covid19 in India has been that this time the instances of people from the Northeast getting racially targeted and abused in many parts of the country have been countless, and almost on a regular basis.
This social behaviour based on racialized identities is directed against the diverse food habits, lifestyle, physical features, indecipherable languages, dresses and the cultural patterns of the different communities who have inhabited the Siang and Brahmaputra basin. ‘Northeastern region of India, part of the sub-Himalayan topography, or as a colonial would describe the “Mongolian fringe” constitutes of several ethnolinguistic groups (Mon-Khmer, Tibeto-Burman, Tai) who become the racial Others in Mainland India due to perceived physical differences, where their bodies and identities are often misrepresented or imposed with different socio-political constructions’. The lack of information and interest in the racial ‘other’ and the historical bigotry against them among the mainland Indians have created a sense of hostility where their identities are misrepresented. With the news of how the virus is an outcome of the food habits of the people of the East and South Asian origin, the Northeast India community bears the burden of being the doubtful nationality in one’s own country. We are almost forced to believe, looking at the enormity of reported instances of racial profiling and abuse of people from the Northeast that mere reportage of such attacks will not help contain the racist attacks, but a much deeper intervention of law is the need of the hour.
The categorical ‘otherisation’ of the northeast people because of the food habits, the Northeast community is subjected to the xenophobic behaviour of the mainlanders. The current racial slurs on the people with mongoloid features are a continuation of the existing racism in India. The vilification of certain population is a familiar symptom of viral outbreaks. Disease fosters fear and stigma and stigma is more dangerous than the virus itself. Accompanying the rise of COVID-19, there has been a rise of racism across the world. The use of racist rhetoric by US President Trump, terming Coronavirus as China Virus added fuel to an already fraught situation in the west. In India as well, the people from the Northeast are increasingly facing racism and discrimination in the rest of the country.
Seeking a Solution
Racial violence during the time of Corona adds to the already existing Racism against the people of North-east India. The denial and absence of this region from any textbook or curriculum can be cited as a reason for little or no change in the racist attitude of the people. Most of the Indians grow up with a poor understanding about the north-east, the people, their culture and their lifestyle; they feed on the already pre-conceived notion that “north-east people eat anything and everything, the women there are morally loose and easy and eat stinky food”. Racism leads to the colourisation of the responses by the people in the “mainland India” leading to the ‘otherisation’ of North-easterners. To associate the disease with a group of people leads only to expelling, isolating and segregating them, distracting us from taking measures to prevent the disease. This labelling of people as the ‘virus’ or the ‘infected’ can affect far more serious damages to the society than the epidemic itself” leaving an ineffaceable and colossal psychological and physical impact upon them. Coronavirus is no more just a pandemic; it has also become a racial slur making it a law and order problem. North-East Indian people are right now dealing with two viruses’ Covid-19 and Racism and this is the high time that the authorities need to take steps to tackle racism. There is a legal vacuum that exists when it comes to dealing perpetrators of racial harassment. India must implement the provisions enlisted in the Bezbaruah Committee report on ending racial discrimination. The committee recommended a provision in section 153(C) of IPC, and insertion of a clause in section 509(A) of the IPC to provide a maximum of five-year imprisonment and a fine as punishment for racism. Law enforcement agencies need to be strengthened and sensitized about racial discrimination. However, the involvement of law enforcement agencies is not adequate enough to resolve the problem; this is a problem that has to be also addressed by raising awareness about the origin and diversity of our people and the contribution that they have made in diverse fields.
In this, we can take a cue from tactics studied and implemented elsewhere in the world to fight racism. In ‘The Science of Equality’, Godsil along with her co-authors proposed several tactics that seem, based on the research and is promising. The tactics were about presenting people with examples that break stereotypes, asking them to think about people of colour as individuals rather than as a group. She also focussed on tasking them with taking on first-person perspectives of people of colour and increasing contact and interactions between people belonging to different racial background. While all of these interventions appear to reduce subconscious racial biases, interracial contact appears most promising for reducing racial anxiety more broadly. So, if these tactics are emulated in the sub-continental experience, far-reaching results can be expected.
Also, it is necessary to remember that most of the instances of racial discrimination arise because of the fear of the other or the ‘exoticization of the ‘other’. The conditioning of minds against diversity is the root of the problem which needs to be unlearned through concerted efforts of agency and culture. If we look into the field of cultural psychology, it could be seen that scholars have tried to articulate the role of agency in culture. They are of the view that people are not passive recipients of a reified entity called culture. Rather, people play an active role in making and remaking culture, and the manner in which their psychology is culturally organized. Thus, a concerted effort of raising consciousness through popular culture is necessary. Mere focusing on legality and criminality or even morality won’t be able to reduce the bias that has been accumulated through generational learning. In this, more focus should be put on to get people to see that diversity isn’t a threat to them. Efforts should also be made on familiarizing the ‘odd’ other through non-confrontational conversations in which both parties share their lived experiences that could go a long way in demonstrating that different racial groups don’t have to be at odds. Apart from these, efforts on creating local spaces where people can talk about race issues and air out their fears along with more formal public education campaigns should be made. In this, not just government interventions, but raising consciousness through organisational efforts and discussions, popular literature, music, stand up comedy, lifestyle bloggers, YouTubers can go a long way in bridging the gap that law and morality cannot.
However, the key to these conversations is empathy. Given the current racial scenario in India, like anywhere else in the world, it will take a lot of empathy along with consciousness, spanning not just one but many conversations in several settings over possibly many years. It won’t be easy, but if we want to address some people’s deeply entrenched racial attitudes, it may be the only way. And, time is ticking and the pandemic infested world is changing fast.
The authors thank Jahnu Bharadwaj, Doctoral Fellow IIT Gandhinagar for his valuable comments and inputs.
Arnold, David.Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Briggs, Charles.S and Clara Mantini Briggs.Stories in the Time of Cholera, University of California Press, 2003.
Godsil, Rachel. D, Linda R. Tropp, Phillip Atiba Goff, John A. Powell. “Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, And Stereotype Threat in Education and Health Care”, The Science of Equality (1),2014.
Hazarika, Jit. “Racism in the Time of Corona”, Raiot.in, 24 March 2020.
Lopez, German. “Research says there are Ways to Reduce Racial Bias. Calling People Racist Is Not One of them”, vox.com, 23 July 2018.
Priscilla, Wald. Contagious, Cultures, Carriers and the Outbreak Narrative. London and Durham: Duke University Press, 2008
Ratner, Carl. “Agency and Culture”, Journal of the Theory of Social Behaviour,30, 2000:413-434.
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