Fighting Stigma, Xenophobia, Hate Speech
and Racial Discrimination related to COVID-19
In April, at the launch of the United Nations’ policy brief on COVID-19 and Human Rights, the United Nations Secretary-General urged all to remember that “the threat is the virus, not people.” Supporting the Secretary-General’s call, the United Nations Department of Global Communications brought together a diverse panel of experts to discuss the actions civil society can take to counter the rise of racism and hate speech due to COVID-19, and to build solidarity and compassion in the fight against the virus of racism. It was fitting that the online briefing marked the International Day of Living Together in Peace.
Jeff Brez, Chief of the Civil Society Unit, welcomed participants and spoke about the work the Civil Society Unit has done to highlight civil society’s response to COVID-19, and to encourage collective action.
Tracey Petersen, Manager of the Holocaust and the United Nations Holocaust Programme and moderator, opened the discussion by noting that the COVID-19 crises extended beyond the arena of physical health, revealing with devastating clarity society’s fault lines, and the inequalities that continue to be perpetrated. Ms. Petersen observed how fear of the virus, coupled with disinformation, created the perfect environment for prejudice to grow and be strengthened. Conspiracy theories have flourished and are being spread at lightning speed through social media. Age-old stereotypes and tropes have been recruited and refashioned to scapegoat, stigmatize and demonize. Ms. Petersen noted the important role education could play in challenging such prejudice. Through highlighting the complex history and pervasive traditions of “othering” across societies, from the racism that justified the transatlantic slave trade, to the “othering” that facilitated the Holocaust, education can serve to make prejudice visible when it appears, and to offer relevant examples of action taken in the past to contribute to the current fight against prejudice. Speaking specifically about antisemitism, Ms. Petersen pointed to that fact that while antisemitism can be traced back centuries, its deathly poison has not dimmed over time, finding new expression in the context of COVID-19. Antisemitic tropes, as well as Holocaust denial and distortion are increasingly evident in responses to COVID-19. COVID-19 takes place in the context of an international trend of growing antisemitism, as indicated by recent reports including those issued by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights. Ms. Petersen reminded the audience of the observation of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of religion or belief, Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, that challenging antisemitism was a matter of importance for everyone, as antisemitism is, “toxic to democracy and poses a threat to all societies if left unaddressed”. Ms. Petersen concluded that if we are to build a world in which all can thrive with dignity and in peace, then it is in everyone’s interest to challenge hatred: we are all hurt by racism, antisemitism, islamophobia, homophobia, prejudice against disabled, the aged, xenophobia. In fighting hatred, we defend human rights.
Yizhong Yang, a Rutgers University graduate and intern in the Civil Society Unit spoke about his first encounter, in early January, with racism linked to COVID-19. A stranger told Mr. Yang to “go back to his country with your virus” because Mr. Yang was wearing a mask. Andrea Chu of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Chicago Youth, argued that the wave of racism unleashed by the pandemic was related to “irrational fear and the greater economic fear”. Janice Matthias, Executive Director of the National Council of Negro Women, observed that the disproportionate numbers of African Americans who have died because of COVID-19 reflected the impact of systemic racism, and the way this systemic racism undermined the human right of all to quality health care.
Doctors and nurses working to save lives and fight COVID-19 too have been stigmatized. Franklin A. Shaffer, CEO and President of CGFNS International, and Nico Sciasci, Programme Manager, International Centre on Nurse Migration, gave accounts of caregivers’ experience of harassment and threats in the community where they live, some being asked to move from their homes, others evicted.
Panellists also discussed strategies of addressing prejudice that has found expression anew in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Simona Cruciana, Political Affairs Officer from the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, described the measures being taken by the United Nations Secretary-General and the United Nations in addressing these concerns. She singled out the global appeal made on 8 May 2020 to counter hate speech and the recent publication of the United Nations Guidance Note on Addressing and Countering COVID-19 related Hate Speech.
Craig Mokhiber, Director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York, pointed to the United Nations mechanisms that could be helpful in holding governments to account, such as the Secretary-General’s system wide strategy to address hate speech, special rapporteurs, treaties and universal periodic reviews. Mr. Mokhiber’s statement that “solidarity is the best vaccine against the virus of racism” resonated strongly.
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, and emphasized the importance of creating safe spaces in a time when the future is increasingly unknown, especially for those who are the most marginalized.
Akshaya Kumar, Crisis Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, delivered the concluding remarks. She shared numerous accounts of incidents of prejudice, racism, antisemitism, islamophobia, homophobia, stigmatization, and gender-based violence around the world, related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Echoing the sentiments of all speakers, Ms. Kumar called on civil society organizations to work together in solidarity to establish an action plan to combat the inequalities exposed, created and exacerbated by the pandemic, and in this way, to create structures that were equitable and just.