A blend of blatant and inadvertent racism spreads far more widely than the disease itself
Jayde Atchison (She/Her) // Opinions Editor
Next month we will be hitting the two-year anniversary of being trapped in the pandemic that changed all our lives. For some, entire wardrobes have become obsolete as they work from home in their pajamas with their camera off. For others, unemployment is still a looming threat that creates a steady anxiety. However, for an unfortunately large number of people, the biggest effect has been the experience of continuous racism and bigotry.
I am a white, cis-gender woman who has not had to face this reality firsthand. I recognize and acknowledge my privileges, and know that I cannot speak for people of colour. However, I have not kept my head under the sand during the last two years, and I have been witness to the sheer disrespect that Asian and Black folks around the world have been subjected to during our unprecedented times.
In March of 2020, the world decided to shed any veil of decency and became outspoken against Asian people, with China being the forefront of the abuse. People disregarded the scientific name for the illness and called it “the China virus” — placing all the blame on the nation from where COVID originated. The Asian community throughout the west were subjected to verbal and physical abuse from ignorant people who felt they had a right to be vigilantes about a virus that was out of anyone’s control.
Cellphone footage around the world showed us that despite the virus being passed around like hotcakes in every country (most significantly in the US), everyone bypassed blame towards white people partying like it was 1999, and kept their hatred alive towards people of colour. Instead of being able to take a day off from the devastating news on their phones and TVs (like many people often did), BIPOC didn’t (and still don’t) have the luxury of being able to “turn off” the racism that surrounds them.
It didn’t always present itself in outward screams of racist slurs or rants online. The xenophobia seeped into casual conversations at the dinner table, over zoom calls or allotted outdoor walks. It was so casual at times that it brought second-guesses and moments of wondering whether we heard it correctly. Did that guy in front of me at the grocery store really just say “it’s a good thing we don’t eat dogs or cats here” as he’s buying $75 worth of raw beef?
Where we saw racism displayed for the whole world to see was through travel bans. When the pandemic started, and was at its initial peak, we heard cries of closing borders to Asian countries and people, while countries like Italy (where the cases were increasing significantly, daily) didn’t experience those same cries of outrage. We heard words of sympathy and longing to be able to sip wine in Naples someday soon.
Skip ahead a year and half into this “new normal” and we see cases spike again from the variants. Again, we see a shutdown and ban to African countries and a blame set on the continent. This was due to scientists in Botswana being the first to identify the Omicron strain — the strain hadn’t originated there. What we didn’t see was the same treatment to those in the Netherlands — Amsterdam was in lockdown due to an alarming rise in cases, but we did not cut Europe off from North America. We saw people revenge-travelling all throughout Europe, making up for their time away from airplanes.
What it boils down to is bigotry. People want a villain and many western people want to feel validated in their biases. Society saw this with the HIV/AIDS era in the 70s and 80s, with a general reference to “the gay disease”. Later, after the events on 9/11, the world was cruel to anyone who fit a Middle-Eastern description. The concept of the world being “better” is constantly being disproved when we keep looping back to the ignorance that people of colour have been facing for decades upon decades. What the world needs is more openness, empathy and a willingness to learn from those telling their story. If we don’t, the virus may disappear, but the racial pandemic never will.