By Giulia Dessì
The current climate of fear and anxiety surrounding the coronavirus pandemic is acting as fertile ground for the dissemination of conspiracy theories and discriminatory discourses. Since the outbreak in Wuhan, Chinese people, and people of East Asian appearance more broadly, have been attacked and abused because they were seen as carriers of the virus. But as the infections spread across the world, specific religious and ethnic groups have have also been targeted. These attacks range from shaming Muslims for allegedly failing to adhere to lockdown measures, to global conspiracies about Jewish people, drawing on historical prejudices and racist perceptions.
A number of false myths circulating on social media allege that the coronavirus is human-made, purposely created in a lab to be used as a bioweapon, or to make profit from selling vaccines. Some of these fabrications have gone further, claiming that Jews have created it to assert global control. In France, Alain Mondino, head of the far-right National Rally list in municipal elections in the Paris suburbs, shared an antisemitic video which claimed that the coronavirus was “developed by the Jews” in order to “establish their supremacy.” Similar accusations, in the shape of memes and images, abound on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Telegram, and 4chan. They often use the “happy merchant” drawing, an antisemitic cartoon of a Jewish man with heavily stereotyped features, to indicate that Jewish people are behind a secret plot to destabilise the world for their own benefit. Some images depict the coronavirus with a Jewish man’s face, adding to the existing dehumanising images of Jews as parasites, bacteria, and rats, widely used in Nazi propaganda during the Second World War.
If these antisemitic conspiracy theories proliferate among the far-right, other types of stigmatisation filter into mainstream media. The highly respected publication The Economist published an article looking at the potential of an economic collapse in the tourism industry in the Maldives, and published an image of a woman wearing a niqab alongside it—even though there is nothing in the article about Muslim women. It is part of an ongoing problem of thoughtless stock photography that goes on to entrench stereotypes—something we covered recently at Media Diversity Institute.
Even more explicitly, the Greek daily broadsheet Kathimerini published a cartoon depicting two women in Turkey, dressed in burqas and with the image of a virus underneath the facial mesh of their garment on their official Twitter account. The cartoon was published without any explanation, implying that Muslim women—and likely Muslims in general—are infected by the coronavirus, and hiding it from society. Kathimerini shared this at the height of Greece and Turkey’s border troubles, furthering its potential to incite hateful commentary.
As more European countries adopt travel bans and partial border closures to limit the quick spread of the coronavirus, anti-immigration rhetoric infused the discussions around health precautions among the far-right. The German nationalist news site Philosophia Perennis argues that the shutdowns of the borders with France, Austria and Switzerland in mid-March prove that border closures are possible after all, using the pandemic to smear refugees. It goes on to insist that these measures should have been implemented during the so-called refugee “crisis” of 2015, which, the website claims, has caused a wave of daily violent attacks “connected with the Islamic migration.”
Right-wing politicians have also exploited the pandemic to fuel fears against migrants, using the old discriminatory narrative that depicts immigrants, especially undocumented migrants, as carriers of disease. At the beginning of March, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s chief adviser on homeland security, György Bakondi, said that “there is a certain connection between coronavirus and illegal migration.” What followed was the indefinite suspension of access to the transit zones along the Serbian-Hungarian border, halting the acceptance of all asylum seekers. Government propaganda media, such as 888.hu and Origo, echoed the government positions, failing to point out that, after the outbreak in Wuhan, the coronavirus was initially spread from Europe to other regions through wealthy people returning from skiing trips and business travel in Italy. At the end of March, a new law gave the Hungarian government the power to rule by decree during the coronavirus emergency, although the law has no time limit. This set of measures handed Viktor Orban sweeping new powers which include jail terms for spreading misinformation, with reporters already saying they have been denied access to information on the pandemic.
In the UK, calls to draw on the “national spirit” to fight the pandemic are often composed using exclusionary or Islamophobic tropes and narratives. On social media, photos of Muslim people gathering near a mosque in Leeds were shared as evidence that Muslims were not adhering to the social distancing and lockdown measures. Fact-checkers and police refuted these claims as false, explaining that the footage was taken the Friday before lockdown measures were announced. Despite Facebook also labelling the post as fake news, numerous comments continued to push Islamophobic rhethoric, alongside complaints against the police not acting as they should.
A local newspaper in Hull published an opinion piece by a resident inviting the country to come together to combat the coronavirus. This positive message, however, was directed to “indigenous Britons” against “enemies of the country”, “political Islamists [who] want to convert the rest of us”, and people who have a “divided loyalty” because they “retain ties with the Indian subcontinent or various Caribbean Islands.”After receiving several complaints for publishing an article inciting hatred, the newspaper apologised for the “unfortunate error” and withdrew the column.
Public responses to government measures have also been inflected with anti-Muslim sentiment. In northern France, the prefect of the Aisne departement, Ziad Khoury, the highest-ranking local representative of the central government, announced a partial ban in the sale of alcohol, to prevent an increase of episodes of domestic violence. In the social media frenzy that followed this measure, later withdrawn, some influencers from the so called “fachosphere”, the far-right environment in France, accused the prefect of applying Sharia law, using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse. Regardless of his actual religious identity, the Middle-Eastern name of the prefect was highlighted in order to stir up anti-Muslim hate speech.
Religious discrimination during these times of crisis is emboldened and pervasive, often hiding behind calls for solidarity and community. In order to challenge the targeting of specific communities, we must hold governments accountable, and highlight attempts to curtail human rights and bolster authoritarian powers. Crucially, we must also intervene in public discourse to prevent the perpetuation of discriminatory myths and narratives, exposing the dangers of scapegoating and nationalistic rhetoric.