COVID-19 has made many of us fearful and anxious but that’s not an excuse to blame others. Let’s talk about COVID-19 and racism so it does not become the racism virus. 

Kristin Bower is a Leadership and Workplace Consultant with MyWorkplaceHealth and an award-winning Diversity and Inclusion expert. With over 20-years of experience, she is an outspoken advocate for a deeper awareness of mental health issues and is committed to helping organizations foster psychologically safe and healthy workplaces.

United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Today, March 21st marks the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It’s observed annually on the day the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fired upon and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960.

Sixty years later it feels like perhaps we should have come farther than we have.

Racism and COVID-19

With the current spread of Covid-19, it seems another virus is spreading as well: racism.

One simply has to turn on the news, or log onto social media channels, to see stories of Asian people experiencing harassment and discrimination. A family with Asian heritage in my own small city in the suburbs of Metro Vancouver had the word “quarantine” spray-painted on their driveway this past week.

There’s a leader in a neighbouring country who continues to intentionally refer to COVID-19 (coronavirus) as the “Chinese Virus.”

Why does it matter? Because words have power. And those who hold power should weigh them carefully.

Importance of Naming Viruses

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued new guidelines in 2015 for naming new infectious diseases. “This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.” says Dr. Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security, WHO.

Like a virus, racism can lie dormant just under the surface with no signs of life until one day the symptoms become evident. And what type of environment is just right for this particular virus to flourish? Fear.

It’s a frightening time. There’s anxiety and unease about so much right now. And it’s not just our physical health we’re worried about. The financial impact and job insecurity are two huge considerations for many of us. It’s easy to fall into a negative cycle – who can I blame for all of this?

What can we do to impact the racist messages regarding COVID-19?

Let’s challenge each other when we hear mistruths, bias and racism being spread. Let’s question what we read and hear.

What we need right now are healthy doses of empathy and compassion. And the good news is that those two medicines are in ample supply.