Coronavirus pandemic being exploited to fuel Islamophobia

Coronavirus pandemic being exploited to fuel Islamophobia
Incidents of far-right groups allegedly trying to blame UK Muslims for the spread of the virus were recorded by the hate crime-monitoring group Tell Mama. (Social media)
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Updated 08 April 2020

Coronavirus pandemic being exploited to fuel Islamophobia

Coronavirus pandemic being exploited to fuel Islamophobia
  • British counterterrorism police investigating far-right groups for spreading hatred

LONDON: British counterterrorism police are investigating far-right groups accused of using the coronavirus crisis to fuel anti-Muslim sentiment.

Dozens of incidents of far-right groups allegedly trying to blame British Muslims for the spread of the virus were recorded in March by the hate crime-monitoring organization Tell Mama.
It said it had debunked numerous claims made on social media that Muslims were breaching the lockdown by continuing to attend mosques to pray. There were also incidents where Muslims were attacked, it added.
Tommy Robinson, the founder and former leader of the English Defence League, and one of the most prominent far-right figures in the UK, shared a video online that was alleged to show a group of Muslim men leaving a “secret mosque” in inner-city Birmingham. The claims were subsequently dismissed by West Midlands police.
West Yorkshire police similarly dismissed images allegedly showing Muslims attending Friday prayers, pointing out that they were taken before the lockdown was announced.
David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, said counterterrorism police were looking into reports that right-wing groups were trying to use the pandemic to create division. “It’s something we are monitoring very closely,” he added.
In one incident reported to Tell Mama, a Muslim woman said she was approached by a man in Croydon, south London, who coughed in her face and claimed he had coronavirus. The incident was reported to the Metropolitan Police.
The woman, who wears a hijab, said she tried to avoid her attacker, but the man turned toward her and “got in her face.”
She told him she had already contracted the virus and recovered, and was therefore immune, after which he swore at her and racially abused her before leaving.
The Metropolitan Police acknowledged that coronavirus had played a role in hate crimes in recent weeks, telling Arab News: “People of certain ethnicities and cultural backgrounds have been targeted in the context of the coronavirus outbreak.” The “deplorable” incidents, it said, have taken place “in the real world and online,” and involved “physical violence in a small number of cases.”
Shaista Aziz, a journalist and anti-racism campaigner, told Arab News that the targeting of women in these crimes is “no accident.”
She said: “In the last few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of the far right in the UK. Their No. 1 rallying call is hatred of Muslims, and a lot of it is gendered Islamophobia: It’s targeting particularly women who wear the hijab and the niqab.”


A Muslim woman said she was approached by a man in Croydon, south London, who coughed in her face and claimed he had coronavirus.

She added: “It isn’t unexpected, it’s horrifying, and it just shows how an international crisis like this pandemic is being further weaponized by people with a warped ideology.”
Iman Atta, director of Tell Mama, said: “These extremists are using coronavirus to get their pervasive message across that somehow the Muslim communities are to blame for the spreading of the virus.
“It is mainly repeat offenders — individuals who are already known to hold anti-Muslim views — who are repeatedly seeing this as a way to cause community turmoil and tension. It is at times like this when there are pressures in society that some people manipulate this to fuel hate and division across communities.”
One such example of high-profile far-right figures exploiting the crisis is Katie Hopkins — notorious for her inflammatory and frequently Islamophobic messaging.
Hopkins shared a video of police in India assaulting Muslims for congregating at a mosque, and tagged Humberside Police.
She wrote: “Indian police assisting young ‘men of peace’ to disperse from crowded mosque during lockdown. Something to aspire to hey @Humberbeat?”
Dr. Rakib Ehsan, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, explained why figures such as Hopkins have been so quick to seize on the pandemic in their messaging. “While the concerned many see the COVID-19 pandemic as a devastating global crisis, it’s being welcomed with open arms by far-right extremists,” he told Arab News.
“In times of insecurity and anxiety, extremists think this is the time to target an individual group — people are looking for answers and someone to blame,” he added.
“The far-right weaponization of COVID-19 poses a serious challenge for public authorities across the Western world.”

UK’s vaccine approval raises world’s hopes for COVID-19 fight 

Updated 47 min 10 sec ago

UK’s vaccine approval raises world’s hopes for COVID-19 fight 

UK’s vaccine approval raises world’s hopes for COVID-19 fight 
  • Light at the end of the tunnel as Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine wins UK regulatory body’s approval
  • Rollout next week raises hopes of ending pandemic and rebuilding economies by mid-2021

LONDON: The news that Britain has approved the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTech has raised expectations that other countries could also begin immunizations in the near future and slowly bring the curtain down on a pandemic that disrupted the global social and economic order like no other event in living memory.

Trials have shown that the Pfizer/BionTech shot offers 95 percent protection against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which to date has infected 64 million people worldwide and killed nearly 1.5 million since it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

The approval by Britain’s medicines regulator, MHRA, means a mass vaccination campaign could begin in the UK as early as next week, with the first 800,000 doses distributed to the elderly and most vulnerable as a priority. The government has already ordered some 40 million doses — enough to vaccinate 20 million people.

Recipients will be given two injections, spaced 21 days apart, with immunity developing after the first dose. Its full effect kicks in around a week after the second booster. Scientists say the side effects are mild and tend to last no more than a day or two. Pfizer/BioNTech has priced the vaccine at around $19.50 per dose, or $39 per patient.

“With 450 people dying of COVID-19 infection every day in the UK, the benefits of rapid vaccine approval outweigh the potential risks,” Andrew Hill, senior visiting research fellow in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Liverpool, told Reuters news agency.

The messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine itself is truly revolutionary, taking a small fragment of genetic code from COVID-19 to train the body’s immune response to recognize the virus. Until Wednesday, nothing like it had been approved for use in humans.

This announcement came as a huge relief to publics, businesses and governments worldwide after months of lockdown measures, crippling pressure on health services and grinding economic turmoil. It is also expected to calm anxiety and stress as families and individuals forced to remain indoors and separated from loved ones see the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again,” Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said in his remarks lauding the approval.

Pfizer/BioNTech announced the success of its phase three advanced trials in early November — a remarkable feat given it only began work 10 months ago. Vaccine development can take up to a decade under normal circumstances.

Since then, US pharmaceutical giant Moderna and the UK’s Oxford University/AstraZeneca team have unveiled their own workable vaccines — a reassuring sign that the virus can be fought on multiple fronts.

Although the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is highly effective, it is also expensive, must be stored in special boxes packed in dry ice at -70 C, and can only be kept in a fridge for five days once delivered. For developing countries, the high cost and logistical challenges could prove prohibitive. If more vaccine approvals follow in the coming days and weeks, governments will likely shop around for the best deal.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson wearing a face mask because of the coronavirus pandemic leaves number 10 Downing Street in central London on December 2, 2020, to take part in the Prime Minister Question (PMQs) session in the House of Commons. (AFP)

The Moderna vaccine, which uses the same mRNA model employed by Pfizer/BioNTech, had an equally impressive efficacy rate (95 percent) in phase three trials. Better yet, it is stable at normal refrigerator temperatures of 2-8 C for up to 30 days, and can be stored for months at -20 C.

The Oxford team has found a lower-cost alternative with an average of 70 percent effectiveness but which can be stored at fridge temperature. The vaccine, which adapts a chimpanzee virus that is harmless to humans to train the immune system, may prove a far more practical option for developing countries.

Although this is all positive news, experts have repeatedly cautioned that the world should not expect the pandemic to be fixed overnight. Production, distribution and repairing the economic damage caused by the lockdowns will take several months assuming no new, unforeseeable problems crop up.

“Distribution of the vaccines across the whole of the globe means that there will be a substantial time lag before COVID-19 is truly tamed, with more and greater personal and economic losses along the way,” Dr. John C. Hulsman, president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, said in a recent oped for Arab News.

The UK news has raised expectations that other countries could also begin immunizations in the near future and slowly bring the curtain down on a pandemic that disrupted the global social and economic order like nothing else in living memory. (AFP/File Photo)

“It is estimated it will take until the end of next summer (August or September) before the virus is fully under control and the world can begin to breathe again and return to normal. Even then, humanity will not yet be out of the woods, as it is unclear how long the immunity the vaccines offer will last.”

Several countries, including some in the Middle East, are involved in talks with leading companies and research institutes engaged in various phases of trials. The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, is engaged in preparatory talks with countries on ways to ensure prompt and fair distribution of successful vaccine candidates. 

Many nations, including Arab countries with strong relations with potential producer states, began talks earlier this year with a view to obtaining a vaccine. “I know that most ministries of health have had talks with Moderna and AstraZeneca to book their quantities,” Belal Zuiter, senior consultant at Cambridge Pharma Consultancy in London, told Arab News in August. “I think the Arab world will have enough doses within the first two or three months after a vaccine is produced.”

On Nov. 27, Saudi Pharmaceutical Industries and Medical Appliances Corp. (SPIMACO) signed an agreement with German biopharmaceutical company CureVac to supply and distribute a coronavirus vaccine in the Kingdom. The CureVac vaccine successfully passed the first phase of clinical trials with more than 90 percent effectiveness in early November.

A Saudi and German pharmaceutical deal signed in November includes the possibility of extending the supply and distribution rights to the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. (AFP/File Photo)

The agreement includes the possibility of extending the supply and distribution rights to the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.

“Saudi Arabia will be one of the first countries to receive the vaccines,” Abdullah Al-Assiri, assistant deputy minister for preventive health, said during an interview on Saudia TV in early November. Saudi health officials have previously announced plans to offer free vaccinations by the end of 2021 to 70 percent of residents who have not contracted the virus.

Incidentally, several Arab countries were among those that formally expressed their interest in participating in the COVAX facility, described as an “insurance policy” to access COVID-19 vaccines. The mechanism is designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to the world’s largest and most-diverse vaccine portfolio.

“The idea behind COVAX is just to make sure all countries, whether rich or middle-income or low-income, will be able to access at least enough supplies of the vaccine for priority groups,” Dr. Abdinasir Abubakar, head of Infectious Hazard Management Unit at WHO’s Cairo office, told Arab News earlier.

Once a vaccine has been approved by regulatory agencies and/or prequalified by WHO, the COVAX facility will then purchase these vaccines to try and initially provide doses for an average of 20 percent of each country’s population, focusing on healthcare workers and the most vulnerable groups.

The goal is to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of 2021.


Twitter: @RobertPEdwards