Representational image. | Image Courtesy: Pexels
Pandemic is not new to human history. There have been instances of change in political and economic order after a pandemic. Similarly, community abusing, stigmatisation have also been associated with pandemics. The COVID-19 pandemic, too, is also not completely free from stigmatisation, with deep racist and communal overtones. While scientists, researchers, economists and social scientists are working on how to mitigate the pandemic and deal with its aftermath, a parallel track of increased stigmatisation has also been in progress.
Even many of the world’s leading organisations involved in communicating public health information have not freed themselves from it, including Nature, the prestigious journal. WHO had officially named the disease caused by the novel coronavirus as COVID in February and it has now been accepted widely. But before that many organisations erroneously associated the virus’s name with Wuhan and with China.
However, Nature has come out with an editorial apology with an appeal to everyone to abstain from such associations can lead to any sort of stigmatisation. In the editorial of Nature published on April 7, they have apologised for their early involvement in associating the virus with China. The editorial reads: “That we did so was an error on our part, for which we take responsibility and apologize.” The editorial further says— “It would be tragic if stigma, fuelled by the coronavirus, led Asia’s young people to retreat from international campuses, curtailing their own education, reducing their own and others’ opportunities and leaving research worse off — just when the world is relying on it to find a way out. Coronavirus stigma must stop — now.”
It has been a common practice for years to associate viral diseases with places, landscapes or the region where it first occurred. We have many examples—MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome which first occurred in the Middle East, Zika virus named after a forest in Uganda, etc. WHO, aiming to stop this practice, introduced guidelines in 2015 so that stigma and the resultant negative impact towards these regions and the people could be reduced. The underlying message in the guideline is that an epidemic makes everyone at risk, and it does not matter who they are and where do they belong to.
But, US President Donald Trump has repeatedly associated the virus with China, while Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro called it China’s fault. Politicians in other parts also commented in the same tune, including UK. Some even said that China should bear responsibility.
Criticising a country or for that matter, any policy of any government is something else, but to associate directly any virus or outbreak to a place or a particular population underlies a racist agenda. Adam Kucharski, an infectious disease epidemiologist, in his book The Rules of Contagion says that “pandemics lead to communities being stigmatized, which is why we all need to exercise more care. If in doubt, seek advice, and always fall back on the consensus of the evidence”.
Failing to remain vigilant against the appearance of any sort of racial or communal discrimination has its consequences. Many Asian origin students and researchers including those from China, who are currently pursuing education in many universities in Australia, US and UK have returned home amid the pandemic and many have remained where they are. Reportedly, many of these may not return from their home country fearing racism. Many leading university campuses foster an international and diverse population of students which is an utmost necessity for advancement of any kind of academic activity. Racial discrimination might hamper it in future.
The pandemic has tightened the integrity of scientists and research from across the world in understanding it, controlling it and also in mitigating the aftermath. Reversely, racism, if continues, will thwart this effort.