The COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant catalyst for enhancing society’s understanding of how existing inequalities between different groups of people can be attributed to the role of the media and the inadequacy of political actors when claiming to ensure equity. As a South-Asian woman, the exacerbation of anti-Asian hate crime, the rise in xenophobic and racist rhetoric when discussing policies, and the double standards imposed upon people of colour has emphasised to me just how little it takes for western societies to use BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) communities as punching bags when things become difficult.
While 2021 has indeed been a year of many triumphs for the Asian community, we have also had our fair share of struggles. These struggles were not new, and the lack of resources to adequately manage and support Asian communities experiencing difficulties highlights that our work is far from done. Since the onset of the pandemic in the summer of 2019/2020, the spread of COVID-19 has been used to justify the appalling xenophobic belief that Asian (or more specifically, Chinese) communities are to blame for the current health crisis. Although anti-Asian sentiments have always existed, between April 2020 and April 2021 there were a total of 520 anti-Asian racism incidents, which averages to at least one anti-Asian incident per day. Asian shops, particularly those selling products from East Asia, experienced exacerbated hardship as, in addition to the financial implications of the Australian lockdowns, the misinformation correlating Asian cultures and foods with the possibility of getting COVID-19, meant that there was a deliberate avoidance of Asian businesses.
Now, while there is no doubt that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted East Asian communities, we cannot deny that it has also resulted in severe hardships for the wider Asian community. The Australian government’s decision to cancel all flights from India at the peak of its Delta wave, for example, was in stark contrast to its attitudes towards other Western countries, like the UK and the US, when they were experiencing similar outbreaks. There was no immediate rush to ban people from these countries and there was certainly no use of ‘health orders’ to justify the stranding of citizens. While the closure of Australian borders has played a role in ensuring that our country has somewhat fared well in this pandemic, the disproportionate,and often exaggerated, responses to Asian countries experiencing different outbreaks makes me question whether the worth of people of colour extends beyond Australia’s use of BIPOC communities to label itself as ‘multicultural’.
Furthermore, we saw these racist undertones become more and more prominent with each new lockdown. The narrative, regardless of which Australian state you live in, began to show an undeniably lax attitude towards affluent suburbs – which are, coincidentally, predominantly Caucasian. Now, as a Sydneysider who resides in the heart of Western Sydney, I can tell you firsthand that the increased policing presence within Sydney’s western suburbs reiterated the belief that people of colour were to be held responsible for cleaning up after the mess left behind by the North Shore and Eastern suburbs. This sentiment was echoed in Victoria’s poor handling of the public housing towers, where many residents were from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and were refugees. The Ombudsman report found that the Victorian government had violated the rights of the residents, and highlighted the double standards where richer, white suburbs were provided leniency whilst suburbs with populations of refugees, migrants and people of colour received harsher restrictions. It comes as no surprise, however, that the Victorian government does not agree with the Ombudsman report. Since its release, they have done nothing to address the issues raised, and no official apology has been made.
For Australian politicians, the sentiment that people of colour have trouble following rules was used to justify increased police presence in communities of colour. It is no secret that many migrants and refugees leave their homelands due to their state’s abuse of power, and resettle in countries like Australia to escape such horrific experiences. Yet the state governments’ decisions to employ the police force to ensure people of colour ‘do the right thing’, has only encouraged bigots to feel emboldened in their racist abuse. This was apparent through the multiple hateful, anti-Asian letters received by Asian councillors in Sydney, with some detailing death threats. So it seems that it is not only the Australian media that is becoming all too comfortable with enabling racism, but the rhetoric and actions of Australian politicians, also reflects a rising anti-Asian sentiment.
Take October 2020 for example, when researcher Osmond Chiu was asked by Senator Eric Abetz to “unconditionally condemn the Chinese party dictatorship”, when Chiu was in fact there to discuss the under-representation of BIPOC people in the Australian parliament. Now, when I first heard about this, I must admit it set me off. We have come to a point again, where the loyalties of Asian people need to pass an arbitrary “test” in order to ascertain that we are indeed “true Aussies”.
So as we move into the New Year, and Australia tries to move past the pandemic, we as a nation need to consider how our policies and rhetoric over the past two years have contributed to exposing the deadly issues of racism and xenophobia. The deplorable treatment of Asian individuals and communities has showcased that discrimination based on race is still very prevalent within Australian society, and contradicts political and social discussions that insist racism is in Australia’s past. Indeed, over the past two years I have more often than not found myself considering what it means to be a “true Aussie”.
Does it mean turning our backs on our multicultural communities the minute things get a bit wobbly?
Does it mean vilifying entire groups of people because it’s the easier way to vent some frustration?
Or does it mean negatively stereotyping entire cultural communities while simultaneously refusing to take the recommended health measures seriously?
Ultimately, this pandemic has revealed that in order for us to start healing from our experiences over the past year, we have to do better to engage with each other equally and respectfully. We need to do better. For the sake of our country, for the sake of our communities, and for the sake of our society