Friday, October 30, 2020

Wherever a pandemic goes, xenophobia is never far behind

As news of the novel coronavirus (and the disease it causes, COVID-19) continues to trickle across the world, it is also spreading racism and the fear of Chinese people in what is now known as “sinophobia.” This came to light last week in Gaborone when a video started making rounds and circulating on WhatsApp showing a Chinese man and woman being verbally insulted by two young boys at Railpark.

Although the video is a bit blurry, what is clear are the indirect Setswana expressions of intolerance directed toward the Chinese duo. Dr. Thabang Ponde who has extensively studied the connection between prejudice and disease, says whilst Botswana’s history of anti-immigrant rhetoric plays a role, it is counterproductive to associate a disease with a group of people and assume that segregating a group of people would be a protective measure.

“Any form of disease fosters fear and discrimination; and the vilification of certain groups of people is a familiar symptom whenever there is a viral outbreak. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, Africans were the primary targets of stigmatisation mainly because the World Health Organisation which oversaw the Ebola outbreak response named the disease after the river in the Congo,” he says.

Dr Ponde also says it is important to note that the lived experiences of those who are belittled and incorrectly labelled as ‘infected’ shows us that the climate of fear may in fact cause far more serious damage to society than the epidemic itself. 

These were the same sentiments shared by two researchers: Professor Monageng Mogalakwe, a sociologist at the University of Botswana and Yanyin Zi, a Chinese scholar based at The Center for African Area Studies at Kyoto University in Japan. In their 20 page co-authored study they found out that sometimes negative perception that a group of people might have toward the other fosters an environment of hate and distrust.

Their study also showed that Chinese take an equally dim view of Batswana. From their observation, Chinese stereotype Batswana as HIV infected and they seldom take the local bus or use the public toilet for fear that they will become infected as well.

Dr. Ponde also says while racism certainly exists in every country, his observation is that the majority of people are coming together in Botswana trying to work together during this global health crisis. He also says as the coronavirus and xenophobia attacks spread, it mirrors the political conditions in the countries it touches. “That is why some members of parliament are calling for tougher immigration restrictions and erroneously linking the outbreak to the Chinese,” he says.

A study conducted by the Chinese state-funded news site The Paper shows that over 55 percent of attacks against Chinese workers abroad took place in Africa. The report also found that South Africa was the worst location for such incidents of xenophobia.

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