COVID-19 Fuels Discrimination Toward Foreigners, Vulnerable Groups in Asia, Survey Finds

Ahmad Syamsudin
20200917-ID-COVID19-awareness1000 A soldier stands guard next to barbed wire in a coronavirus-locked down area in the old town of Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, May 10, 2020.

Close to half the people in Indonesia, Malaysia and two other Asian countries blame particular groups for the spread of COVID-19, says a new survey released Thursday, raising worries that the pandemic is fueling discrimination against migrants, foreigners and others.

Forty-nine percent of respondents think a specific group is responsible for the spread of the coronavirus disease, according to the survey of some 5,000 people conducted by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in the two neighboring Southeast Asian countries as well as Myanmar and Pakistan.

The people blamed include foreigners, those attending religious ceremonies and others who are not following rules such as wearing masks or practicing social distancing, the IFRC said.

“It is alarming that our findings show that almost half of people surveyed believe specific groups are at fault for the spread of COVID-19,” Dr. Viviane Fluck, coordinator for community engagement and accountability at the IFRC, said in a statement.

“We are very concerned that vulnerable groups such as migrants and those who cannot afford protective equipment such as masks may be discriminated against due to stigma and fear rising from these views.”

The survey was held to find out what people know about the virus and how it spreads, in order to enable stronger community-based responses, the IFRC said.  Interviews with respondents took place from May 29 to July 20.

The survey’s findings show that more than half of Indonesians and close to a third of people in Myanmar and Pakistan blame groups such as foreigners and rule-breakers for the spread of COVID-19.

In Malaysia, 69 percent of those surveyed blame others, such as people not wearing masks and those attending religious gatherings, for community transmission of the virus.

Across the four countries, 62 percent trust television as a source of information on the pandemic. Radio and newspapers are the next most trusted source, at 44 percent and 40 percent, respectively, the survey said.

However, only 22 percent of those surveyed trust social media, despite it being one of the leading sources of information about the virus. That means, nearly four out of five people distrust social media as a source of knowledge on the pandemic.

‘Anyone can be infected’

The blame game eventually leads to discrimination and to stigmatization of those who’ve contracted COVID-19, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

For instance, Indonesia, has the second highest number of COVID-related fatalities in Asia, after India, but it also has one of one of the world’s lowest testing rates, Reuters reported on Thursday.

One of the main reasons for the low testing rates is the stigma associated with the virus, said Wiku Adisasmito, the spokesman for Indonesia’s COVID-19 task force, and other public health experts in the country.

Indonesia on Thursday reported 3,635 new infections and 122 deaths from the coronavirus disease, taking the total to 232,628 confirmed cases and 9,222 deaths.

Wiku urged the public not to stigmatize those infected with the virus.

“The virus doesn’t care about one’s position, gender or age. Anyone can be infected,” Wiku told a news conference Thursday, according to the state-run Antara news agency.

“Stigma can only be erased by tirelessly promoting health to increase awareness about infections and empathy to help those in need,” he told Reuters.

According to the statement from IFRC, stigma associated with COVID-19 also gives rise to fears among the vulnerable about being discriminated against.

This, in turn, could prove counterproductive when trying to stem the spread of the virus, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said back in May.

In a tweet that he posted then while following a raid on undocumented immigrants near Kuala Lumpur, Robertson said: “Hauling migrants away to crowded detention camps will increase COVID-19, and prompt others to hide and refuse to cooperate.”

At the time, Malaysian officials said the raid was intended to help curb the spread of the virus.

Since then, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in Malaysia have come down significantly, with local health authorities reporting only 674 active cases and only 128 fatalities from the disease as of Thursday.

Last month, Malaysian authorities deported a Bangladeshi migrant, Rayhan Kabir, after holding him for almost a month without charge following his appearance in an Al Jazeera news documentary. In it, he spoke out about the alleged mistreatment of foreign workers during a round-up of undocumented migrants at the height of the pandemic in Malaysia.

Malaysian officials never said that his arrest, incarceration and expulsion were linked to what he had said in the documentary, but they launched a manhunt for him after the news program aired and blacklisted him as “unwanted.”

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