COVID-19 has resulted in many expressions of solidarity within communities. Indeed, it has become common to hear stories of volunteers shopping for neighbours, gardaí walking the dogs of those cocooning, or donors organising food for health service providers. Neighbours share books, recipes, or seeds. Small everyday actions that render confinement bearable and encourage interaction.
Social media is riddled with examples of creative and original community initiatives. Across Europe people clap or light candles in appreciation of the risks and sacrifices made by frontline workers.
Governments across the continent have also appealed for unity and solidarity. We need to stay at home not only so we don’t get infected but also to protect others. The hashtag #Istayathome has versions in many languages. Supportive messages such as “we will get through this” abound across media platforms. Communities have stepped up in the face of the COVID-19 challenge.
The current crisis has fostered levels of solidarity that have not been seen in a long time. George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian on 31 March summed it up:
The horror films got it wrong. Instead of turning us into flesh-eating zombies, the pandemic has turned millions of people into good neighbours.
However not all relationships have improved. The resurgence of nationalism and xenophobia seems to be a darker consequence of the current crisis.
In many places foreigners have become a threat. While not the only ones, Asian people seem to have taken the brunt of this xenophobic wave. Soon after the arrival of COVID-19, Asian businesses in Europe and the US saw their customers rapidly disappear.
This resentment was new for many. In Slate Ian Kumamoto related that,
now, for the first time since I moved to New York in 2015, I look over my shoulder and walk faster in public places because I don’t want to become the next headline.
Having decided to go for a haircut days before the shutdown in New York, he poignantly added:
I sat in the salon chair, and he started cutting. I stared at the mirror as my charcoal hair fell on the floor of the empty salon. I saw two Asian men staring back, doing their best to hold themselves together.
Quite simply, blamed for COVID-19 Asian people have become more and more vulnerable to harassment and violence.
Perceptions that outsiders bring diseases and threaten public health is not new. Some of the discourses that surround the arrival of refugees and other immigrants are peppered with implications about the dangers they bring to public safety. Foreigners are often thought as dirty with the potential to contaminate others. The outsider is the feared “other”.
“Othering” refers to the process where an identified group becomes a threat to the established or favoured group. It is a mechanism for self-protection and capable of encouraging strong emotional reactions. Often unconscious, this process places groups in different hierarchical categories.
A belief in the natural superiority of our group might provide the false assurance that what happened to “others” would never happen to us. The writer Jiwei Xiao wonders if the initial relaxed and “cavalier” reaction of the US and other western countries to the danger of the virus was the result of the “‘othering’ of COVID-19 as a ‘Chinese virus’”.
Scapegoating is also linked to this process of “othering”. We use this “other” as the projection of our fears. And often the victims are outside groups such ethnic minorities with diminished ability to retaliate.
The “inside” close to us
Groups do not need to arrive from abroad to be considered the outsider “other”. We are all members of different groups — bigger or smaller than the next — that provide meaning to our social world. Belonging to groups defines who we are and how we relate to others. Groups emerge in relation to others. We are what the “others” are not. Membership of groups determines to a large extent how we perceive others.
Often perceptions are based on stereotypes embedded in the culture of groups. The attributes that we assign to members of other groups are exaggerated and generalised but we tend to abide by them. However inaccurate, stereotypes help to justify negative or hostile perceptions we have of others.
Prejudices and racism feed on this process of “othering”. But there is another side to it. It creates solidarity. It promotes a false sense of homogeneity and unity among those who oppose “them” in the division of “us” and “them”.
As Sartre pointed out, people choose groups out of pride as well as out of fear of being free and alone. In this sense Sartre found that if Jewish people didn’t exist they would be invented by anti-Semites.
Whether this is as inevitable as Sartre portrayed, the fact is that the homogeneity in “us” is as imaginary as the difference we bestow on “them”.
Dr. Mayte Martín holds degrees in Philology, International Relations and Communications, and Sociology. She is co-founder with Lisa Rose of the consultancy Martin Rose which supports youth, communities, professionals, politicians, and civil servants in working towards more equitable and peaceful societies through training, research, mediation and advice. For more information see martinrose.online
Featured image via Twitter – Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation