How many times should one say and how loud should it be said that the coronavirus does not discriminate on the grounds of ethnicity, social status and political power? It is a great leveller and the message it gives to the world at a huge human cost is that humanity is one.
But in certain parts of the world, racism is shamelessly being flaunted as though it is a virtue. It is disheartening to note that racist prejudices have got the better of some of us, even as the pandemic rubs into us the message that the only way we can overcome the crisis is through a united effort. If we do not work together, we will surely perish together.
While the Sri Lankan government’s Covid-19 preventive measures are praiseworthy, the manner in which certain politicians, opinion makers and sections of media are conducting themselves is not helpful in building a united front based on enlightened values to enable the government to overcome the crisis. They peddle corona-racism, targeting the minority Muslim and Tamil Christian communities. In some established newspapers, editorial columns were nauseating, to say the least. The racial venom with which these newspapers poison the minds of the readers is as destructive as Velupillai Prabhakararan’s terrorism that sought to divide this island along ethnic lines.
Adding fuel to the racist flames even as the country struggles to cope with its worst health and economic crises are certain television channels. The type of journalism they practise makes one wonder whether the hallowed journalistic principles have been fed to brutish beasts and some journalists have lost their reason. Drunk with bigotry, they are incapable of learning life’s valuable lessons from doctors, nurses, health workers and security forces personnel who are performing an exemplary service for humanity on the frontlines of the Covid battle without looking at a patient’s ethnicity, religion or social status.
Racial profiling of coronavirus cases continues even after the Health Services Director General’s guidelines urged the media not to mention the ethnic identity of the victims and even after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in his address to the nation this week reminded us that “This is not a time to be divided along religious or ethnic lines. We have only one enemy and that enemy is Covid-19. This is a time to think about the country. We must remember that we can overcome this grave crisis, only if we think collectively as human beings.”
Instead of generating sympathy for victims and their families, hatred is heaped on them in the social media even by some people of social standing. As a result, coronavirus victims are criminalised and stigmatised.
That racism exists in the media to mislead unsuspecting readers and viewers into believing fake news or hate-coated news indicates the inadequacy of media activism aimed at bringing about a fact-based, value driven and agenda-free media culture in Sri Lanka. Media activists, editors and publishers, if they show any concern about the deterioration of journalistic values, should work out a mechanism to name and shame the rogues among us and expose those who fail to adhere to the hallowed principles of the noble profession. If we do not act now, journalism will no longer be a public service. It will be presstitution.
In neighbouring India, too, racism has dragged journalism to gutter levels in states where the rightwing Bharatiya Janatha Party and ultranationalist groups hold sway. In contrast, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, one of the worst Covid-hit regions, the media deserve our plaudits for not racial-profiling the victims. This is despite the fact that, in Tamil Nadu, most victims were connected to the Tabligh Jamath’s New Delhi conference that drew thousands of delegates from all over India and from overseas.
Perhaps the corporate media resort to islamophobia and slam the Tabligh Jamath in an outrageous attempt to cover the Narendra Modi government’s failure to take early action against the coronavirus which first made its presence felt in India on January 30.
This does not mean that Tabligh Jamath leaders could be absolved of their irresponsible behaviour. Although they trot out excuses that they complied with the government’s March 30 lockdown order and closed the conference, the damage had been done as some of the participants were carriers of the virus. They should have acted proactively and cancelled their global conferences in Malaysia and India, in keeping with Prophet Muhammad’s advice that one should neither visit nor flee from a plague-infected area or his saying that the Muslim is he who harms not a fellow human being with his action or word.
"Perhaps the corporate media resort to islamophobia and slam the Tabligh Jamath in an outrageous attempt to cover the Narendra Modi government’s failure to take early action against the coronavirus which first made its presence felt in India on January 30"
Coronajihad is a word trending on social media platforms in India. The rightwing racists spread the canard that the Muslims are on a suicide mission to wipe out non-Muslims, despite the fact that in India, a disproportionately large number of patients are Muslims. In a recent article in the Colombo Telegraph, Tisaranee Gunasekera drew a parallel between the racist rants with which the agenda-driven media contaminate society and what happened during the Bubonic plague in the 14th century when a Jew was arrested in Geneva and tortured to sign a confession that he was poisoning wells to spread plague among the gentiles.
Similar allegations of one ethnic group trying to give another ethnic group the virus are also being bandied about in the United States, Israel and other countries. In the US, where the Afro Americans make up a large number of Covid patients, disproportionate to their population strength owing to their poor socio-economic background, it is alleged that white supremacists are spreading the virus in non-white neighbourhoods. This comes as no surprise when the Donald Trump administration stands accused of giving a racial character to the virus, triggering a diplomatic war with China.
In occupied Palestine, it is alleged that Israeli settlers are spitting and spraying saliva on vehicles and houses of the Palestinians. Also in Israel, the ultraorthodox Jews are being accused by mainstream Jews of spreading the virus by defying the government’s social-distancing regulations and holding prayer meetings.
When racism infects the mind, reason flees and no amount of saner counsel will be of any benefit. It was only last week that the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution which stressed “there is no place for any form of discrimination, racism and xenophobia in the response to the pandemic”.
We may disagree with the policies of Donald Trump but we feel for American people as they fall victims in their thousands to the virus. We may dislike the policies of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but when he got infected with the virus, we pray for his speedy recovery. We pray for the good health of people in Sri Lanka, the US, Britain, Italy, Spain, China, Iran and all over the world that they are saved from the coronavirus. To rephrase John Donne, any man’s suffering must diminish us, for we are involved in Mankind… and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for us.