DUBAI: The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic had highlighted racial inequalities around the globe, a C20 meeting heard on Thursday.
Countries had struggled to address different forms of racism amid a “global reckoning around race,” according to a panel discussion involving professors from the US and Australia.
The group talked about how the pandemic had “heightened the experience of racism” in different nations, whether directly or indirectly.
Tim Soutphommasane, from the University of Sydney, said: “We’ve seen some pretty clear examples around the world where the emergence of COVID-19 has seen some groups being directly targeted for racism – those from Chinese and Asian backgrounds, for example, have been fingered in many countries for spreading the diseases because of its origin in China.”
Some governments, he added, had even made matters worse by identifying COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus,” claims which became a huge issue during the initial period of the outbreak.
The stigma translated to actual hate crimes against ethnic groups in big cities throughout Europe, Australia, and the US, Soutphommasane said, adding that the pandemic also shed light on a more subtle form of racial inequality.
“If you look at who is the most susceptible to catch the virus, they tend to be those who have worked in industries where exposure to the virus is considerably greater, where the relative luxury of working from home may not necessarily be possible.
“If you look at those who occupy those occupational hazards, you will find, in many cases, those who belong in racial minorities,” he said.
The professor pointed out that people who worked in high-risk industries were usually from minority groups, migrant communities, and those “who are in more marginal positions in society.”
William Spriggs, from Howard University in Washington, D.C., said the same could be observed in the US where African Americans were predominantly in industries which were more exposed to the virus.
In the Middle East, a global hotspot for migrant communities, many nationalities faced extraordinary struggles when the pandemic broke out, including being laid off and stranded in their host countries because of international travel bans.
The panel also discussed how racism could be treated as a disease, especially with heightened debates on public health amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Soutphommasane said there were “some elements of racism that do resemble a public health issue,” although both him and Spriggs agreed the analogy could be dangerous.
The Sydney-based professor of sociology added that racism could be both contagious and preventable, two characteristics of a disease.
“Seeing an outbreak of prejudice and hatred can quickly spread, I think there’s an interesting analogy to that,” he said.
“I do think we can prevent racial hatred … and just as in public health scenarios – how inaction or indifference from governments and leaders can lead to worsening public health outcomes – if you have a political society that doesn’t take action condemning prejudice and inaction, (racism) gets worse,” he added.
Spriggs, who is also chief economist at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in Washington, D.C., said racism should not be likened to a disease because it was not an “individual thing,” rather it was systemic.
Both professors noted how racism was a political problem that required a solution that was different from solving a virus pandemic.
“We’re not just talking about changing behaviors, which is a paradigm in public health intervention, we are talking about systems,” Soutphommasane said.
“You can’t just fix behaviors, you also need to fix systems, which then makes an inherently political proposition … that’s where I think the analogy may start to break down a little.”
The panel agreed that governments should do more to address racism and discrimination, including through the introduction of legislation that “could provide practical means to counter racism in many forms.”