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Civil society briefing highlights discrimination linked to COVID-19 and underscores need to confront slavery’s legacy of racism

18 May 2020 – To mark the International Day of Living Together in Peace (16 May), more than 300 people came together in an online webinar today to discuss societal inequalities linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual event – entitled “Fighting Stigma, Xenophobia, Hate Speech and Racial Discrimination related to COVID-19” – was organized by the United Nations Remember Slavery Programme, in partnership with the United Nations Department of Global Communications’ Civil Society Unit and The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme.

The discussion underscored the need to educate people about racism, one of the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, and the urgency of confronting slavery’s legacy of racism together, which is the theme of the 2020 International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade and events organized by the Programme throughout the year. Speakers, including representatives from the United Nations and civil society, touched on topics ranging from xenophobia and hate speech to racial discrimination and antisemitism.

Welcoming participants was Jeff Brez, Chief of the Civil Society Unit, who spoke about the work his office had been doing since the onset of the pandemic in sharing stories about how civil society has responded to COVID-19 and encouraging collective action. Tracey Petersen, Manager of the Holocaust and the United Nations Holocaust Programme and moderator, opened the discussion by noting how the pandemic had exacerbated inequalities in society, saying: “The COVID-19 crisis extends beyond the arena of physical health and has revealed with devastating clarity the fault lines that exist in society”.

Two of the panelists addressed racism from the perspective of African American communities. Janice Matthias, Executive Director of the National Council of Negro Women said people of African descent had been dying in greater numbers from the disease due to systemic racism, “which keeps people stratified”. She stressed that every human being has the right to health care. Jadayah Spencer, the Executive Director of the International Youth Leadership Institute, spoke about her work in preparing black youth for a world with increasing disparities. She emphasized, “It is now more important to create safe spaces, as we step into a future that it is unknown, especially for those who are the most marginalized”. She also noted that only one in five people of African descent had jobs that allowed them to work from home.

Panelists also discussed the role of the United Nations and civil society in fighting racism, xenophobia and hate speech. Craig Mokhiber, Director of the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, explained how certain United Nations mechanisms could be helpful in holding Governments accountable, such as the Secretary-General’s system-wide strategy to address hate speech; Special Rapporteurs; treaties; and Universal Periodic Reviews. He noted that the pandemic was being used as a curtain to “ramp up abuse towards marginalized communities” and emphasized that “solidarity was the best vaccine against racism”. Simona Cruciana, Political Affairs Officer from the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, noted the Secretary-General’s appeal of 8 May, to counter the tsunami of hate speech that had risen alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, was of particular importance.

The universal theme of racism was demonstrated in examples from across the globe. Akshaya Kumar, Crisis Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, gave accounts of incidents in various countries and spoke about the rising tide of antisemitic comments linked to COVID-19. She also spoke about violence against women and said, “women are now twice as likely to face gender-based violence because of the pandemic”. She called on civil society to help establish an action plan to combat inequality related to the pandemic.

Doctors and nurses working on the front lines to save lives have also been stigmatized because of the COVID-19 virus in every corner of the world. Franklin Shaffer, President of CGFNS International, and Nico Gennaro Sciasci, Programme Manager at the International Centre on Nurse Migration, gave accounts of caregivers experiencing harassment and threats in the communities where they lived. Some caregivers had been asked to move; others had experienced evictions.

Yizhong Yang, a Rutgers University graduate and intern in the Civil Society Unit, was invited to set the stage for the briefing. He spoke about his first encounter with racism linked to COVID-19 from early January, where he had been told at the airport in New York to go back to his country with his virus because he had been wearing a mask. Since then he had learned of an Asian person being pushed off a subway platform for wearing a mask and other incidents of racism and intolerance. Also addressing racism targeted at Asians across the globe was Andrea Chu of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. She felt the wave of racism unleashed by the pandemic was related to “irrational fear and the greater economic fear”. 

According to a survey conducted following the briefing, all participants agreed that the discussion had increased their understanding of how disinformation about COVID-19 has been used to encourage racism, prejudice and stigmatization. In addition, 96 per cent of all respondents reported that the briefing had given them an understanding of what measures were being taken to combat stigma, racism and prejudice arising in the context of COVID-19. Meanwhile, 69 per cent said they would apply what they learned at the briefing to their work or study activities.

Andrea Chu

Andrea Chu, Chicago and Midwest Regional Organizer,
Asian Americans Advancing Justice

Craig Mokhiber

Craig Mokhiber, Director of the United Nations Office
of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Franklin Shaffer

Franklin Shaffer, President and CEO, CFGNS International

Jadayah Spencer

Jadayah Spencer, Executive Director, The International Youth Leadership Institute

Jeffrey Brez

Jeffrey Brez, Chief, Civil Society and Advocacy Section, UN Department of Global Communications

Nico Gennaro Sciasci

Nico Gennaro Sciasci, Programme Manager, International Center on Nurse Migration

Simona Cruciana

Simona Cruciana, Political Affairs Officer, United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect

Tracey Petersen

Tracey Petersen, Moderator and Public Information Officer, The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme

Yizhong Yang

Yizhong Yang, Student at Rutgers University and CSU intern

UN Web Services Section, Department of Global Communications, © United Nations