COVID-19-related discrimination and stigma: a global phenomenon?

03 - Good Health & Well Being
16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

COVID-19 has provoked a series of discriminatory acts across continents, with different groups as targets. In this article, 10 UNESCO Chairs dealing with human rights and social inclusion provide insights as to how this global phenomenon manifests itself in their countries. 

The article is not exhaustive. Its purpose is to help illustrate, through local experiences reported by the Chairs, the plurality of forms that discrimination and stigma related to COVID-19 may take in different contexts. To be effective, responses will need to address the specificities of each manifestation, tackling, in particular, deeply rooted patterns of exclusion.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, “the instability and fear that the pandemic engenders is exacerbating existing human rights concerns, such as discrimination against certain groups”, as pointed out by the UN Secretary-General in a policy brief on COVID-19 and Human RightsMs E. Tendayi Achiume and Mr Fernand de Varennes, respectively the UN Special Rapporteurs on contemporary forms of racism and on minority issues, also reported on COVID-19-related attacks against minority groups worldwide. Despite the scarcity of data on this phenomenon, the discriminatory incidents reported in newspaper articles and on social media seem to confirm that this is a global phenomenon. The information received by 10 UNESCO Chairs on the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable groups illustrates how their respective countries were affected. 

The COVID-19 outbreak reinforced the targeting of the “other”

While the profile of victims varies from country to country, there seems to be a common pattern in discriminatory acts occurring during the pandemic: more often than not the target is generally the 'other', i.e. the foreigner, someone belonging to an ethnic or cultural minority, etc. 

During the first phase of the COVID-19 contagion, those who suffered the most from discrimination were Asians and people of Asian descent, who were frequently targeted for causing the pandemic and its spread. As reported by UNESCO Chairs from Italy, Spain, Greece, Denmark and the Netherlands, discriminatory episodes consisted of verbal assaults in public places, denigrating campaigns on social media, the boycott of their business activities and, in some cases, difficulties in access to educational institutions. 

In some contexts, discriminatory attacks spilled over to other groups. According to the UNESCO Chair on Education for Social Justice at the Autonomous University of Madrid, Roma communities in northern Spain were targeted, allegedly as they were the first to be contaminated by COVID-19. 

Similarly, the UNESCO Chair for the Promotion of the Culture of Peace and Non-Violence at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India reported that Muslim communities, who represent the largest minority of the country, have been victims of attacks and other forms of discrimination amidst the pandemic. These episodes started to emerge when the spread of the virus was allegedly associated with a gathering held by a Muslim missionary movement in March. 

Discrimination and stigma take new forms as the pandemic evolves

It has been observed that discrimination evolved in many places in parallel to the pandemic, and that new targets were chosen along the way. If, at the very beginning targets were those erroneously considered as the cause of the disease, the fear of contagion led progressively to attacks also against people who, for different reasons, were particularly exposed to the virus.

As quoted by the UNESCO Chair on housing at the University Rovira i Virgili of Tarragona in Spain, the targets of discriminatory attacks changed over the weeks as “another type of stigmatization arose out of the fear of being infected.” In some cases, this fear resulted in threats against healthcare workers and supermarkets clerks who were at risk of being infected in their workplaces. For instance, the UNESCO Chair in conflict resolution at the University of Córdoba reported that healthcare professionals were asked by their communities not to go back to their homes, so as to avoid contaminating their neighbours. In other cases, the fear of contagion led to stigma and discriminatory attacks against the homeless who, due to their predicament, cannot comply with the lockdown, nor apply other basic preventive measures. 

All these incidents seem to confirm that, in times of crisis and great uncertainty, especially of such magnitude as the one we are currently experiencing, people tend to look for scapegoats in order to vent their frustrations, worries and fears. 

Countering stigma through enhanced solidarity and awareness-raising 

As the pandemic escalated, international and regional organizations called on states for solidarity, not only in tackling the health emergency but also its impacts, especially on the most vulnerable. 

In many countries, responses took the form of mass media campaigns launched by national and local authorities, and civil society. These had the following objectives: to call for citizen’s solidarity and to contribute to changing people’s attitudes towards groups who are at risk of discrimination in a specific context. Tackling prejudices, emerges, therefore as a key intervention, along with other measures providing financial support or aimed at improving access of disadvantaged groups to basic services. 

The UNESCO Chairs participating in this survey reported the multiplication of such initiatives in their countries. It is worth mentioning the emergence of citizen-driven support and solidarity networks which “play a crucial role in preventing and limiting the effects of social stigmatization and ethnic discrimination associated with the virus” - as pointed out by the UNESCO Chairs at the University Carlos III of Madrid, at the University  Rovira i Virgili of Tarragona and at the University of Florence.

The UNESCO Chair on Education for Human Rights, Peace and Democracy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki reported that in Greece, where the number of immigrants and asylum seekers has been sharply rising since 2015, national NGOs and the International Organization of Migration (IOM) launched campaigns calling for citizens’ support for refugees. 

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This article was prepared with inputs by: 

  • UNESCO Chair in Education for Social Justice at the Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain); 
  • UNESCO Chair on housing at the University Rovira i Virgili of Tarragona (Spain); 
  • UNESCO Chair in Cultural Rights at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark); 
  • UNESCO Chair in Education for Human Rights, Peace and Democracy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Greece); 
  • UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Peace at Maastricht University (Netherland); 
  • UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Democracy and Peace at the University of Padova (Italy); 
  • UNESCO Chair in Population, Migrations and Development at the  Sapienza University of Rome (Italy); 
  • Transdisciplinary UNESCO Chair in Human Development and Culture of Peace at the University of Florence (Italy); 
  • UNESCO Chair for the Promotion of the Culture of Peace and Non-Violence at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education (India); 
  • UNESCO Chair in a Culture of Peace and Education at the Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja (Ecuador).