Democracy & Justice

Racism in a Pandemic

The UN established 21 March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year, the media is in thrall to a pandemic that is ravaging the world and occupying the centre of social interest.

by Youssef Ouled
Manifestación antirracista (Madrid) / Imagen cedida

The UN established March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as it considered the fight against racism a priority for the international community. Racism not only denies many people their rights and equality, but it can also come hand in hand with incitement of hatred, which can lead to genocide.

This year, it the media is totally focused on the coronavirus pandemic, which is ravaging the world and occupying the centre of all social and political interest. Although the virus is advancing quickly, we all hope that it will eventually subside so that our lives can go back to normal, although we have to accept that some older people, those who are vulnerable and people with existing conditions may die.

Racism is not a virus, but a historical construction

Racism is not a virus. It is a phenomenon that shapes societies by affecting how people live (and sometimes whether they live at all). And when we talk about racism we must talk about race, not as a biological construction (a premise that has been rejected, even though some people are still trying to recuperate it) but as a historical construction that conditions all aspects of life at a social, economic and political level. This is why racism is not a disease, which, as it is defined "alters the normal functioning of an organism", race operates as a structure of power, which means it is part of the normal functioning of the organism.

Only a few days before the explosion provoked by coronavirus, on the borders of Europe, the Greek authorities were rejecting people who were seeking refuge from war. "Defence of our borders," in the words of the European Commission, carried out with military weapons against men, women and children fleeing death, and, as journalists on the ground reported, with the police colluding with far-right movements against people trying to survive.

At the same time, yet another ship was sinking in the Mediterranean, while on the Southern border of Spain, Malika, a 56-year-old Moroccan "carrier" [women who carry goods on their back across the Spanish-Moroccan border] who suffered from diabetes, died of a heart attack after her goods were confiscated. This week also marks the first anniversary of the Islamophobic attack on two mosques in New Zealand, which cost the lives of 51 people. Racism manifests itself in many forms, but can pass unnoticed by those who don't suffer at its hands. Iin the current context, covid-19 becomes the umpteenth excuse for racist policies and actions.

Many reactions to the spread of coronavirus have racist undetones

The fact that China was the origin of the virus outbreak has revealed the cultural racism shared by politicians, comedians and society in general. In our country, the extreme right "racialized" the virus by calling it "Chinese", and this sinophobia is more visible than ever in Western countries where people with Asian profiles have suffered physical and verbal attacks.

But we have also witnessed anti-Roma feeling. As I write this article, more than eight thousand people have been affected by coronavirus in Spain. Numerous media outlets, including, El País, and, have decided to highlight the Roma ethnicity of many of those affected of one of the outbreaks of the virus in the regions of La Rioja and Vitoria. This has fed multiple audio recordings via WhatsApp and social media that underpin a racist narrative. We need to reject simplistic views and understand racism as a structural problem in order to be able to realize, as Rromani Pativ points out, that "it is not social alarm that provokes racist reactions, it is the previously racist society that reacts accordingly".

Racial discrimination as the norm in Spain

As soon as the government announced the state of alarm due to the health emergency, new images of the Barcelona Police performing "illegal, regular and systematic stops by way of racial profiling" were already circulating, as this user denounced on Twitter. The current situation becomes more complex for people who are likely to be stopped due to their appearance.

Spain is currently reviewing the use of racial profiling by the police. A few months ago, Rights International Spain published "Under suspicion: the impact of discriminatory policing in Spain", a report that describes the consequences of the use of racial profiling through stories of people for whom these stops can be an almost daily occurrence. Spain was condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2009 for the racist stop of Rosalind Williams "only because of her racial characteristics". Similarly, Zeshaan Muhammad has been fighting for years in courts (currently at the European Court of Human Rights) to obtain a ruling that will put an end to racist stops such as the one he suffered in 2013 in Barcelona. This ruling is expected in the coming months.

Coronavirus will go away, but will racial profiling end too?

Multiple national and international bodies have pointed out the need to end racial profiling, which denies the right to not be subjected to racial discrimination, the right to equal treatment, personal freedom and security and the presumption of innocence. Following its visit to Spain in 2018, the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent concluded that the use of racial profiling is an "endemic problem" in the country.

Racism existed before coronavirus and will exist after it, it but is imperative that as a society we reflect on its consequences. The fight against racial discrimination must achieve a political and social commitment similar to that shown in this current combat against the pandemic. If there is a similarity between racism and coronavirus, it is that while the latter is indiscriminate, racism is not only a problem for those who suffer it directly, rather it concerns everyone, especially those who do not experience it because they are on the privileged side and prefer to look the other way. Now that, for a limited period of time, we know that the police will stop us even when we go out to buy some bread, we must reflect on the fact that for many people, due to their ethnic-racial condition, these stops are not the exception, but the rule.

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