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UN expert hits out at COVID-19 xenophobia

UN special rapporteur on racism cites US president as official who makes 'dismaying' divisive statements

Peter Kenny  | 23.03.2020 - Update : 24.03.2020
UN expert hits out at COVID-19 xenophobia


Governments must ensure that their response to the coronavirus pandemic does not contribute to xenophobia and racial discrimination, a UN official said on Monday, citing recent remarks by the U.S. president.

E. Tendayi Achiume, special rapporteur on racism, said governments must instead eradicate xenophobia throughout all state policy and messaging.

"Crises like the coronavirus pandemic remind us that we are all connected and that our well-being is interdependent," he said, marking this weekend’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, held on March 21.

"It's dismaying to witness state officials – including the president of the United States – adopting alternative names for the COVID-19 coronavirus," alluding to Donald Trump’s much-criticized practice of calling it the “Chinese virus.”

Achiume said such leaders, instead of using the internationally recognized name of the virus, have adopted names with geographic references, typically referring to its emergence in China.

"This sort of calculated use of a geographic-based name for this virus is rooted in and fosters racism and xenophobia. In this case, it serves to isolate and stigmatize individuals who are or are perceived to be of Chinese or other East Asian descent," he said.

The rapporteur said that "such irresponsible, discriminatory state rhetoric is no minor issue".

He noted that the World Health Organization said in 2015 that disease names do matter to the people who are directly affected.

"Certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities," said Achiume, arguing that such naming can have severe consequences for the lives of people and their livelihoods.

He said the consequences of such disease naming have already become a reality.

"Over the past two months, people who are perceived or known to be of Chinese or other East Asian descent have been subject to racist and xenophobic attacks related to the virus," said Achiume.

Such attacks range from hateful slurs to denial of services to brutal acts of violence.

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