Social boycott?

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The writer is a Rotary Peace Fellow at the University of North Carolina.
The writer is a Rotary Peace Fellow at the University of North Carolina.

IN his press briefing on March 25, the Balochistan chief secretary exhibited zero degree of diplomatic decorum required in public governance when he stopped just short of declaring the coronavirus as the Hazaravirus. This was the third time the highest government offices in the province issued statements and notifications that were discriminatory and racist in tone.

On March 12, a notification from the office of the Inspector General of Police categorically mentioned “staff … belong(ing) to the Hazara tribe” being sent home on suspicion that they were carriers of the virus. This notification was issued when no Hazara employee had tested positive. Such pathetic governance decisions triggered official panic and the Water and Sanitation Authority was the next government organ to issue an even more explicit notification, forbidding the movement of its employees to or out of Hazara neighbourhoods.

The government of Balochistan needs to be reminded that the fight against the coronavirus can be fought without reinforcing racist sentiments.

On the global arena, much to the frustration of the science fraternity, the Donald Trump administration has repeatedly labelled the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus”. In a similar fashion in Pakistan, there are anti-Shia groups that are blaming all Shia pilgrims for the presence of Covid-19 in the country.

Fighting the virus should not entail targeting communities.

As a general rule, it only gets uglier in Balochistan. After these government notifications, one should not be surprised to see messages targeting the ethnic-minority community of Hazaras being shared on social networks. Without any fear of accountability, these WhatsApp and Facebook messages abuse the community, blame it for importing the virus into the country, and warn the larger citizenry to sever all links with Hazara colleagues.

There is no disagreement over ‘social distancing’; that is perhaps the only way we can contain the epidemic. But governments, especially in divided societies, should pay extra attention to ensure that this does not translate into a ‘social boycott’ of marginalised communities.

Our national capacity to inject toxicity into any discourse is remarkable. I am appalled at how efficiently the very groups opposed to science can use the hygiene cover to advance their agenda of xenophobia, fear of foreigners and suspicion of minority groups. This is bound to impair our resolution and national strategy to fight the pandemic.

With China and Iran identified as the initial epicentres of Covid-19, xenophobic statements issued by certain world leaders triggered social campaigns calling for the boycott of Chinese products and people. This has already triggered an increase in violent racist incidents. As a student of global studies, my worry is that the current pandemic will leave patients at the mercy of xenophobic, totalitarian, and isolationist leaders who have no qualms about practising unrestrained ‘otherisation’ by extending travel bans and unilateral sanctions, promoting fear of foreigners and cutting down on mobility and the exchange of goods and people.

The international dysfunction that we have witnessed can be attributed to the trade war between China and the US. In Pakistan, the federal government is to blame for the absence of a national front and a strong strategy to fight the epidemic.

The repeated meetings of the national security division to map out a national strategy have not managed to end the blame game among political parties and the federating units. The captain has failed to capitalise on this mammoth opportunity to assert his leadership and present a clear narrative, thus silencing all those who promote hatred and disharmony.

Despite the fact that Hazaras make up only a tiny chunk of the returnees from Iran, the accusations against them have been huge. The demands to isolate or quarantine the returnees should be unequivocally supported, but the schadenfreude at display here is lamentable at best and an attack on national solidarity at worst.

In crucial times such as these, our response at the state and society levels will define where we stand as a nation. By pure luck, we are not leading in numbers when it comes to those falling prey to the pandemic, and we have other unfortunate nations and societies to learn from. Challenges like this can divide us deeply, but they can also bring us together to support our collective survival.

We must all stick to the medical advice of ‘social distancing’, but we should not allow hate groups to equate this with a social boycott. There is little doubt we shall survive this as individuals — but will we do so as a nation? That is the question.

The writer is a Rotary Peace Fellow at the University of North Carolina.

Twitter: @Changovski

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2020