Freedom News

Discrimination under Covid-19

This text was contributed to Freedom by Fanny Syariful Alam: the regional coordinator and program director of Bandung School of Peace Indonesia, a youth organization working to empower youth in the city of Bandung, West Java, to improve tolerance, empathy and collaborative engagement to accomplish peace and social justice.

Since COVID-19 was discovered in Wuhan, China in late December 2019, we have not stopped hearing which countries have seen potential outbreaks, as well as the increasing number of cases and deaths. Eventually, most countries made some efforts to eliminate the virus, from medical interventions to lockdown, one of the most effective ways to reduce suspected and confirmed contractions of the virus through the restriction of any activity involving crowds, meetings or gatherings. Following Italy as the country with the highest rate of infections and deaths, other European countries announced lockdowns, followed by the USA with the highest number of cases in the world. Indonesia applied the same restrictions of any large scale social gathering in Jakarta, in order to avoid intensifying the number of suspected cases. The current number of confirmed cases in Indonesia has reached more than 16 thousand and is predicted to increase. As a consequence, most of the country’s provinces eventually implemented the same restrictions as Jakarta. The restrictions entail working from home, homeschooling, limited public transport services and the closure of centres of mass gatherings and meetings, with special restrictions in place for praying at places of worship. There are exceptions for buying groceries and carrying out other essential tasks.

Most concerns rely on various political, social, economic and cultural consequences of every country’s conduct in attempting to suppress the number of infections and deaths. However, some of the social and economic impacts have been reported quite massively, such as mass work termination due to the large scale of business operations shut down, income loss mostly for working people relying on daily wages. Furthermore, when it comes to the social impacts, some of them very shockingly lead to the devastation of inter-diverse people social relations. This is unfortunate when all over the world people are engaged in finding the solution to this outbreak.

Discrimination during COVID-19

On 24th February 2020, Jonathan Mok, from Singapore, was assaulted by 4 people who kicked him when he was walking around Oxford Street, London, and said “we don’t want your coronavirus in our country”. On 11th March 2020, a group of SintPaulus High School students in Belgium made a yearly group photo and wore ‘specific traditional East Asian outfits’, while one of them, a girl, was caught pulling the corners of her eyes into a squint. Yet more, it was then found out that there was a paper entitled ‘Corona Time’ held by two of the students.

What Mok experienced came as well to one British-Chinese woman. Declining to give her name, she said that she felt anxious travelling on public transport since she saw passengers obviously move away from her during her journey. Dollice Chua, a Singaporean Kiwi woman, was victim to a racist act when shopping in a mall in New Zealand, receiving dagger eyes from a local woman. Another case in Japan: some restaurants put up signs saying “No Chinese” for almost a week.

Some of the news from Indonesia in February and March 2020 indicates workers profiled as Chinese being examined due to the beginning of the virus outbreak. One of the news items is from 13th February 2020, when West Java Governor, Ridwan Kamil, planned to conduct surveillance on foreigner workers, specifically Chinese born ones who work in West Java Province, to anticipate the virus spread in the area, while in fact it has been a global pandemic, meaning that not only Chinese people are carriers of the virus, but also anyone.

Previously, also in Indonesia, the official news release of the Agency of Social Affairs in the province of Bangka Belitung revealed the initiative of social aids for those impacted by the virus in terms of economic hardship. Signed on 30th March 2020, unfortunately, the release highlighted that the beneficiary must be Muslim. It sparked controversy amid public and the Governor of the province eventually criticised the release and reprimanded the chief due to the violation of the Government Act No. 30 Year 2020. In the end, the chief of the agency clarified that no such discrimination was intended and the aids were targeted for anyone impacted.

Hidden Potentials at the Right Time and Moment:
Xenophobia, Racism, Discrimination

What it is rather complex to understand is that we rarely see all the xenophobia and racism which finally lead to discriminating actions against the groups considered in minority positions economically, ethnically, racially, or religiously in every country. States might claim to promote anti-discrimination policies in various sectors, but it still appears, though sometimes hidden. In some instances, most people are not aware of them openly, for example, the use of words “expatriate and immigrant”. Mawuna Remarque Koutonin underlines that the term expatriate usually refers to exclusively western white people going to work abroad and somehow living there temporarily or permanently, while others such as Africans, Asians or Arabs are immigrants. She highlighted a quote from an African migrant worker that top African professionals working in Europe were not considered expats, while he was working for multinational organisations both in the private and public sectors, emphasizing that being black or a person of colour did not gain him the term “expat”.

In Indonesia, Indonesian Chinese people have been a stereotype for obviously long periods. Historically, it began from the era of Dutch colonialism, which classified the societies in three social classes: Europeanen for European white/western, Vreemde Oosterlingen or Eastern Foreigners, such as the Chinese (and others, such as Arabs, Indians or non-Europeans) and Inlander or Pribumi for the locals identified with Melayu race, partially the Muslim ones, based on the Act of Colonials in 1854. Furthermore, the hatred against Chinese people in Indonesia since the era of colonialism was socially constructed by the rulers. For example, in the era of the Javanese Sultan, most of them were assigned as to withdraw tax, and having seen how effective they were in working, the Dutch colonisers did so towards their dominated areas, and undermined the locals’ position, which eventually triggered the Java War, contextually leading to increased Javanese hatred against the Chinese.

After independence, Indonesia gained the moment as a settled country, yet discrimination, xenophobia and racism towards Indonesian Chinese people has continued into the current period. Under the New Order government of Soeharto, the second president, it started with the “specific” segregation in their ID cards, from being civil servants and serving in the army as well as not being allowed to own lands in rural areas. The restrictions covered the public practice of religion, the publishing of Chinese textbooks, and Chinese schools. Chinese people were only allowed to participate actively in economic development and business. The end of the New Order brought a new hope of their equal rights as Indonesian civilians, however, most people still see them as strangers, calling them “Chinese” despite them being born in Indonesia.

Hatred and discrimination derive from xenophobia, defined as the fear of strangers classified as minorities in ethnicity and race or other identities. Most of the vitcims of xenophobia come from other countries which are sometimes considered lower in economic status or as having some issues, such as war and other catastrophes. They become the target of hatred and violence based on the segregation of majority and minority. It is certainly an illogical and unreasonable dislike that leads to intolerance of diversity and difference. As a consequence, racism with discrimination develops into differences in treatment based on the segregation described above. Racism is supported by supremacy, considering that majority ethnicities in a country are always far better compared to others.

The above statement is supported by Steindhardt Max, who underlines that xenophobic violence might have socioeconomic impacts, particularly encountered by those integrating into their destination countries. One of these impacts is a decrease in foreigners’ wellbeing, as well as their profound desire to return to their country of origin due to any threat or violence in their new countries.

It is seen, then, that the potentials of xenophobia, racism and discrimination exist under the shadow of ultimate human rights and anti-discrimination protocols, hidden waiting until the exact and right moment comes to hit. Like the ones right now in the period of COVID-19 outbreak.


Connecting with globalisation around the world, it actually should be able to make all world citizens to obliterate differences based on race, ethnicity, religion, economic and social background, since respect towards the principles of human rights and anti-discrimination practices as to acknowledge people’s dignity with their rights is supposed to be enforced with no exceptions. Furthermore, it is applied as a universal principle as well.

The signing of International Covenant of Elimination Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination lies on the basis of Declaration of Human Rights, along with the aim of the United Nations, that is to develop and to promote the respect as well as the enforcement of human rights and foundation of freedom for all without any segregation according to race, ethnicity, sex, language and religion.

Associated with the recent COVID-19 global pandemic, obviously it requires extra attention to promote the sufficient human healing process. On the contrary, with no awareness, the potential of xenophobia, racism and discrimination based on the origin country of the virus suddenly emerges and segregates a certain ethnic group. It encourages a false general assumption that the group is the main cause of the spread of the virus. As a consequence, specific violent actions, profiling processes and discrimination as mentioned previously tend to be justified despite the violation of human right principles. Both positive and negative sides surely are inevitable for anyone under the pandemic, however, as the global citizens, people around the world are supposed to show their consent together to concentrate towards the healing and virus eradication process with no segregations against specific races and ethnicities. Surely, the potentials of xenophobia, racism and discrimination is the ultimate issue, and if let free, they will just look forward to seeing the right time and moment depending on what specific impactful events in the world will take place in the following time.

Fanny Syariful Alam

Image: Sylvia Whitfield (derivative work of an image by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/ Dr. Fred Murphy), Public Domain

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