. Othering in the time of Pandemic | Ceasefire Magazine

Othering in the time of Pandemic Special Report

Global responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, from Singapore to the United States, have too often involved greater stigmatisation of already marginalised communities, notably migrants, refugees and minorities. This is not just morally abhorrent but presents serious dangers to global public health, argue Sanam Monteiro and Renugaa R.

Features, New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Friday, July 24, 2020 11:44 - 0 Comments


A migrant worker living in a factory-converted dormitory in Singapore. (Credit: Edgar Su/Reuters)

The recent Covid19 pandemic has stirred up debates that previous crises, such as SARS or Ebola, didn’t. This seems to be simply because COVID19 reached Europe and the Americas, with death tolls much higher there than in China. The West needs to bleed for audiences to be captivated; so used are they to turning a blind eye to the crises of the non-Western world.

Pandemics constitute a major public health crisis and a threat to populations worldwide. Existing tensions become more salient and racial stereotypes are reinforced. When initial reports revealed the novel coronavirus originated in China, Asian communities became the target of discrimination and subjected to waves of insults in countries across the globe, a phenomenon that very much mirrored reactions to the SARS epidemic. These waves of xenophobia can represent a public health threat in themselves and need to be analysed in their specific contexts.

Learning from past pandemics: The process of ‘Othering’

L’enfer c’est les autres” (Hell is other people), the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once stated. Widely used in the cultural theories of Said (1978), Gilman (1985) and Crawford (1994),  ‘the Other’ is defined as “those outside of, and implicitly subordinate to, the dominant group. ‘Others’ may be less powerful groups within a particular society (such as women) or identified out-groups (such as, in many societies, gay people) and ‘foreigners’.”

This process of “Othering” does not merely occur during unprecedented circumstances, but rather is a common everyday practice which becomes more overtly present at such times of exception. In reality, the existing structures and systems of our society perpetuate and validate the process of Othering, through everyday acts of discrimination against the poor, the vulnerable and the less and under-privileged members of society.

Such ritualised acts of discrimination by the dominant group in society are often amplified in times of crisis. For instance, as early as the Middle Ages, Jews and tramps were blamed for the plague. Several centuries later, the approach of demonizing the Other has been adopted and normalized by the most powerful political leaders in the world to promote anti-refugee and anti-immigrant policies, as part of attempts to reshape identity politics and redraw geographical borders.

Scapegoats help make sense of the inexplicable. In the recent battle against the Zika virus, the decision by the United States to frame it as an immigrant disease, closing its borders and placing the blame on a threatening ‘Other’, helped make sense of a virus that seemed unstoppable, but also proved highly inefficient in actually containing the spread of the virus.

When a dominant group faces a potential social or political crisis, a new sense of Self and Image is created by looking inwards, creating narratives representing the Other as the cause of potential harm, and reinforcing the traditional boundaries between in- and out-groups: it is often easier to blame the ‘who’ rather than understand the ‘what’ and find a solution. This personalization of blame derives strongly from the common moral framework of western societies, where sin and crime are a matter of personal guilt. By identifying Others as the source of risk, the dominant group also reduces the sense of helplessness they experience during such events. This ‘geography of blame’ or scapegoating offers an escape from the anxiety brought by disasters by building on existing cultural discriminations. Hence the need to find a person to blame and punish.

During the AIDS crisis in Zambia, for example, the blame was solely associated with teenage girls, and not their male counterparts who contributed equally to the spread of the virus. As such, the lesser privileged groups come to be viewed as symbols of threat. In the case of Covid19, the initial blame was placed on the Chinese government and subsequently extended to everyone of Asian descent. The emphasis on personal responsibility also allowed narratives blaming those components of society deemed dirty or unhygienic, such as Chinese wet markets, to reinforce the personalisation of blame against Others.

This has already fuelled all kinds of irrational behaviours, such as using detergent to fight Covid19 or calling the virus ‘Yellow’ in reference to Asian skin tone. Governments, on the other hand, have failed to focus on minorities to compensate for the structural segregation that prevents them from equally benefiting from Covid19 alleviation efforts.

Learning from ‘Othering’ during Covid19

The Diplomat recently published an analysis of the different approaches to migrant workers in Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam in light of the Covid19 crisis. The research attested that Singapore’s disregard for its migrant workers resulted in a second wave of cases in the country. Similarly, Thailand’s unequal treatment of citizens and migrants, and the complete shutdown of its borders, led to the mass exodus of migrants, creating a peak in the number of cases in neighbouring countries. In both countries, public opinion towards migrant workers is characterised by intolerance and xenophobia and, as a result, the latter are treated as beings who belong outside the social fabric. The combination of pre-existing negative sentiments and the growing anxiety caused by the pandemic has reinforced the already prevalent Othering processes towards migrant workers.

Singapore’s physical segregation of migrant workers

During the initial months of the outbreak, the response of Asian nations such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, were lauded and upheld as models to contain and slow the spread of Covid19. Singapore was commended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for its widespread testing and extensive contact-tracing initiatives. It had also successfully quelled the anticipated second wave as its residents and students returned from Europe and the US. Based on such hard-won early victories, one would have expected the small nation-state to have recovered swiftly from the pandemic.

However, the story took an unexpected turn because of Singapore’s “cognitive blindspot”: the dormitories and management of its 300,000+ migrant workers – hailing from India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and other countries, and comprising approximately one-third of the country’s total workforce. From reporting single-digit cases a day in February, the country suddenly saw a spike to about 1,000 daily cases in April, with almost all patients being migrant workers.

The outbreak has brought to the surface the glaring inequality and spatial marginalisation in Singapore. Succumbing to the prevailing prejudiced sentiments towards migrant workers, purpose-built dormitories housing the migrant workforce were situated away from housing estates, on the outskirts of the city. More than 200,000 migrant workers live in these 43 dormitories, where often 10 to 20 men are packed into a single room, share toilet and shower facilities, eat in common areas, and sleep just mere feet away from each other, making it impossible to practice physical distancing. “The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode,” Singapore lawyer Tommy Koh wrote in a widely circulated Facebook post earlier this month. “The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World.” 

Brought to Singapore to carry out the hard labour that locals refuse to undertake, migrant workers are not only housed separately from the rest of the population, but also perceived and treated differently, leading to the Othering of an already marginalised population, leaving them  open to racist attacks and stereotypes.

A letter to the Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao urged Singaporeans not to blame the government for the spread of COVID-19 within dormitories, instead pointing the finger at the “poor personal hygiene” of migrant workers, whom the writer characterised as coming from “backward countries”. This binary between ‘modern/pure’ and ‘backward/dirty’ falls in line with parliament members describing migrant workers as “walking time bombs and public disorder incidents waiting to happen”; or even the former minister for communication praising the virus for helping clear his constituency of migrant workers congregating in public areas.

During the early stages of the outbreak, the Singapore government proactively put out advisories, conducted temperature checks and contact-tracing measures across the island, urged Singaporeans to upgrade their cleanliness, and to seek medical attention if unwell. However, these measures were not quite as clearly and extensively communicated to migrant workers who were “aware of this, but they weren’t being asked to do anything differently.” Furthermore, the long-standing segregation of migrant workers, and the lack of adequate labour protections, left workers too afraid to report falling sick.

As Jeremy Lim, co-director of global health at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, summarised, “The government was really focused on fighting COVID-19 on two battlefronts: community transmission and imported cases, but it overlooked the vulnerabilities of this third front that’s now glaringly obvious to everyone.”

Viewed as the “hidden backbone” of Singaporean society, migrant workers’ “contribution permeates throughout society in a very necessary and essential way” and yet they remain an invisible community in Singapore. As Mohan Dutta, a professor who studies the intersection of poverty and health at Massey University in New Zealand highlighted, “not only are they unseen, but their voices are also unheard. Inequalities (such as these) are the breeding grounds for pandemics. Countries absolutely have to learn [from Singapore] before it’s too late.”

The process of Othering in situations of crisis – namely neglecting the most vulnerable in society (such as an already physically segregated community) – is not unique to Singapore. In the UK, whilst the government was relatively quick to address the issue of refugees and homeless people to ensure a better monitoring of the pandemic, overcrowded prisons and jails were completely disregarded. Unlike the widespread support of activist networks and public opinion that helped put pressure on the government to address the situation of refugees and homeless people, prisoners suffer from negative connotations from the general population and remain a blind spot in the government’s fight against Covid19. Through the physical segregation of an incarcerated community with poor and minimal support from the wider society, the government continues to render issues in prisons invisible while being aware that a public health crisis in overcrowded cells would result in a real public health challenge.

Thailand’s policy: The Othering of migrant workers

The situation is unfortunately similar in Thailand, home to approximately 3.9 million migrant workers, most of them from Cambodia, the Lao PDR, and Myanmar. The United Nations estimates that a further 2 million migrants work informally in the country but are not included in these statistics.

As part of this informal economy, migrants in Thailand are ostracized from the general population through a lack of legal protections, and have been further excluded from the raft of measures introduced by the Thai government to alleviate the impact of the pandemic. A six-month financial support package worth 30,000 Baht (US$920) was offered to any Thai citizens, and foreign workers registered under the social security system, who had lost their income due to the Covid19 pandemic. However, this scheme was not extended to migrant workers, even though these form an integral part of Thai society. This is because, as Jarrett Basedow (regional director of the Issara Institute for labour rights and anti-trafficking) explains, “most migrant workers are not members of Thailand’s social security scheme.”

Pia Oberoi, senior advisor on migration and human rights at the UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia, points out that the exclusion of migrants from the Thai government’s stimulus and compensation packages “could lead many into situations of extreme precarity.” The vulnerability of these migrants escalated further with the closing of Thailand’s border checkpoints, which left them ultimately stranded without a home, job, income, access to healthcare or relief measures.

Europe has not been immune to similar failures. Covid19 has been met there with the implementation of nationalist and isolationist policies: governments have not only closed borders but also practised ‘linguisting rebordering’ and constructed narratives placing the blame on ‘Others’ outside their physical borders. This has led to a lack of international solidarity, especially striking between European nations, as well as xenophobic waves against Chinese communities, Italians, and even within France towards the eastern – worst hit – regions. This physical and linguistic sharpening of borders has reinforced existing negative sentiments against people beyond them.

Upsettingly, this has further hindered efforts at solidarity towards refugees trapped at Europe’s crossing points, who face poor hygienic conditions without access to healthcare. As governments denied their responsibility towards Europe’s refugees, the latter have become, more than ever, the ‘Others’, prisoners of a legal grey zone. Refugee camps thus became deadly coronavirus hotbeds, challenging the notion of the state and the extension of its prerogatives. This is all the more worrying as refugees are already discriminated against and stereotyped across Europe. To add to the problem, only a minority of Europeans consider themselves well-informed on the issues of migration. With misinformation comes the risk of harmful narratives circulating more easily.

Laos migrant worker in Bangkok waiting to return home after Thai authorities announced a partial lockdown in March 2020. (Credit: Narong Sangnak/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

In India, the country’s poorest migrant labourers have been the worst hit by the pandemic, exposing the nation’s rampant inequality among its communities and its devastatingly unequal development patterns. Without giving citizens sufficient time to prepare, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a televised speech broadcast on March 24, 8pm, announced that a nationwide lockdown of 21 days would start at midnight that very evening. State governments then promptly sealed all district and state borders, and suspended all public transport. As a result, this has shattered the lives of the country’s poorest temporary internal migrants, estimated at over a hundred million, who engage in complex circular and seasonal routes of migration to other parts of the country where work is available, due to the deplorable lack of livelihood opportunities in their home villages. With the ensuing mass exodus of migrants from India’s cities, mortifying accounts of their long and dangerous journeys back home – of more than 1,000 km on foot in some cases – emerged, with many dying of starvation, sheer exhaustion, and road accidents.

The United States: The historical Othering of Native Americans

This interaction of the anxiety caused by the pandemic and the pre-existing Othering processes is observed across the globe. Native American activist voices and public health researchers have been warning the general public of the disproportionate levels of Covid19-related deaths among Native American communities, decimating an already vulnerable population. The mortality rate among Native Americans in Arizona is five times that of other groups, and seven times the average in New Mexico, where Native Americans represent only 8.8% of the population but account for 53.3% of Covid19 deaths. Naturally, Covid19 has had its worst impact among a population already struggling with obesity, diabetes and respiratory diseases, with poor access to water, suboptimal medical facilities and limited finances to invest in proper sanitary products for multi-generational households.

Despite being the nation’s indigenous inhabitants, Native Americans have been the victims of physical, social and political ‘Othering’ from the rest of the population since the founding of the country. It is commonly believed that when Native Americans first came into contact with European colonisers, the unknown cocktail of germs carried by the latter decimated 70% of the indigenous population. However, whilst there is some truth to this narrative, it overlooks the much more nuanced analyses of epidemiological history of the Native American population, and conveniently emphasises the biological weakness of the community rather than bring to light the colonial structures put in place to oppress Native Americans, which rendered them vulnerable to diseases including this very pandemic. For example, by evicting native communities from their lands and placing them in degrading conditions, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 not only created the environment propitious to the spread of diseases among these communities, it rendered them invisible to the general population.

This policy is most strikingly exemplified by the lack of disaggregated statistics concerning Native Americans, whose data is often coded as ‘Others’ in the Covid19 reports of most American states. Another such example is the decision by the Governor of South Dakota to sue the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux tribes for installing checkpoints to ensure their self-imposed lockdown. The Governor’s approach epitomises the negative sentiments of the general population towards the community. As Bad River of the Cheyenne River Sioux put it, “People think that we’re backward savages and now we’re putting a fence around ourselves. (…) Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In 2018, the Reclaiming Native Truth Project published a report which shed light on the myths and misconceptions surrounding Native Americans. Their findings have found echoes in the dynamics that have been at play during this pandemic: few Americans believe that Native Americans suffered from discrimination and are thus entitled to government support; the lack of encounters between Native Americans and the wider population has allowed pervasive narratives to shape people’s perceptions of, and empathy (or lack thereof), towards these communities; the invisibility of Native Americans within modern US society has not only enabled this reshaping of narratives but also influences policy-making without any fact-checking or open discussions. As rightly pointed out in The Atlantic: “large segments of America are indifferent, if not outright hostile, to recognizing these disparities and the inequities underlying them. Native Americans are visible to the general public far more often as sports mascots than as actual communities.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Black and Hispanic Americans have also been more impacted by this pandemic than White Americans. Even though their existence as a community is acknowledged, they account for a disproportionate level of Covid19 death counts, with Black Americans recording 25% of all Covid-19 related deaths despite representing 13% of the population. Against this deplorable overrepresentation in the death toll the existence of disaggregated data is a powerful tool for advocacy, activism and education, yet which Native Americans do not have access to. Public attitudes towards Native Americans during the pandemic have been characterised by rejection, the further reinforcement of stereotypes and physical segregation. More than ever, they are regarded as ‘Others’ in their own homeland.

In conclusion…

Hitting different countries at different times, Covid19 has been a huge challenge to governments and civilians alike. The incredible pace of the pandemic’s spread has allowed countries to learn from the mistakes (and successes) of others. But it is also crucial to learn from past and present experiences of segregation and discrimination, as public health crises build or reinforce narratives that are harder to dismantle in the future, and can even constitute stepping stones for further discrimination in the advent of new crises. Constructing binaries based on notions of purity and modernity is therefore dangerous not only in the present but also in the future.

As Gavin Yamey, associate director for Policy at the Duke Global Health Institute rightly points out, “if we forget marginalized communities, if we forget the poor, the homeless, the incarcerated… we are going to continue to see outbreaks. This will continue to fuel our epidemic.” In the face of pandemics, it is important to acknowledge and cater to not only minorities but more specifically communities whose place in society have been historically constructed as external and are thus subject to discrimination from the general population and from the state.

Sanam Monteiro

Sanam Monteiro recently graduated with an MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), during which she focused mainly on issues at the intersection of gender, religion, and institutional discriminations. She previously worked as an intern for the weekly Newsletter ‘International Health Policies’ published by Antwerp’s Institute of Public Health (Belgium), and is currently an intern at Minority Rights Group in London.

Renugaa R is a third-generation Indian from Singapore, whose passions include education and promotion of minority rights, improvement of the welfare of migrant workers in Singapore, and involvement in grassroots activities. She recently completed her postgraduate degree at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in Anthropology of Development, and also holds a BA (Hons) Communications from The University of Buffalo, The State University of New York.

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