SINGAPORE: Throughout the battle with COVID-19, community leaders, intellectuals and government officials have warned of the other invisible plague which must be contained for us to effectively come out of this pandemic healthier and with higher social solidarity.
That other invisible virus is bigotry.
Xenophobic comments most recently have been rife on local social media platforms following reports of community cases in Singapore involving Indian nationals.
While unsavoury comments did not form the majority of comments – which were mainly about getting the authorities to do more to arrest the incidence of infections – the bigoted and hateful posts were too many to simply ignore.
The pattern is clear: With a spike in COVID-19 cases, negative sentiments of the xenophobic and racist variety increase.
Such sentiments were earlier directed at Chinese nationals in January 2020 after the virus spread from Wuhan, China.
Similar sentiments were directed at Muslims in the region, after an outbreak occurred in Malaysia following large-scale religious gatherings there around that period.
South Asian migrant workers living in dorms were also targeted. A forum letter implicated poor hygiene culture among such workers, completely ignoring the fact that the living conditions in migrant worker dormitories did not permit for much infection control.
DISCONCERTING SITUATION IN INDIA
Such xenophobic sentiments have most recently been levelled at Indian immigrants.
Many are upset authorities in India did not curtail various mass religious and political activities in recent months, likely accounting for the spike.
At the heart of it is this: After a sustained period of low-to-no community cases, Singaporeans fear that progress in controlling the spread of the virus will be undone by new infection cases, possibly from India, coming to Singapore.
They fear it could lead to another wave and trigger a replay of last year’s painful lockdown or worse, increasing the number of COVID-19 related deaths.
This fear has been accentuated in mere days. While Singapore, along with Hong Kong and United Kingdom, has recently banned visitors from India to control the risk of the spread, some have asked whether authorities should have shut the borders to travellers from India earlier.
They have expressed worry over whether other considerations were prioritised over public safety.
Yet, Singapore’s strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has been calibrated to ensure some resumption of travel flows to enable economic activity, mitigated by strict quarantines on arrival. Those returning from high-risk places are subjected to longer quarantine and more testing.
We know this strategy is not fool-proof.
There is a very small chance the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests – effective at 99.5 per cent – do not reveal those with infections and imported cases could spill into the local community, especially if people have let their guard down after months of conscientiously adhering to strict safe-distancing protocols.
In this, citizens voicing their concerns to the government is accepted as part and parcel of a healthy democracy. People can voice their opinion on how situations should be managed based on the values they hold dear – in this case a high prioritisation of health over the economy.
But such discourse becomes a problem when concerns expressed are laced with xenophobia or racism.
The understandable fear of the potential spread of the virus and the demand for the government to effectively control it, should not lead to the condemnation and blaming of the entire Indian immigrant community.
THE OTHER VIRUS REARS ITS HEAD
Singapore residents surely know this. More than 60 per cent of those polled in an Institute of Policy Studies study were concerned over increased suspicion between people of different social backgrounds as a result of COVID-19. This figure is based on 22 waves of online polls.
The good news is there is some self-awareness. About one in four respondents reported becoming more negative about immigrants, including those from India, because of the pandemic.
The persistence of bigoted behaviour before and during this pandemic suggests such attitudes are deep rooted. Inoculation attempts to reduce xenophobia through public education have not been effective with some segments of the population.
This scapegoating must end. It is counterproductive to efforts to build social cohesion in a society which cannot do without a healthy balance of immigrant workers to sustain economic and caregiving activities.
Immigrants with access to social media feel marginalised when they come across these hateful comments.
Many of them contribute substantially to the progress and development of the country, including by managing essential services. Anti-immigrant rhetoric can reduce their motivation to give their best efforts to a society which does not regard them positively.
While xenophobic comments online may not necessarily translate to bigoted offline engagement, individuals fuelled by such comments online may act in a socially irresponsible manner.
This can include a refusal to sit or stand next to someone who looks like an immigrant, hurling hurtful comments at immigrants, or even acts of physical violence. The consequences of such acts can be disastrous.
Moreover, scapegoating could weaken Singapore’s ability to deal with the pandemic.
When immigrants believe they are targeted as potential vectors of infection, they may be more wary of seeking medical attention promptly at the sign of early symptoms. They fear that a COVID-19 diagnosis will exacerbate the wider community's sentiments towards them.
Singapore must take ownership to tackle anti-immigrant sentiments in our community exacerbated by the pandemic.
While such sentiments may be limited to only a small portion of individuals who descend to such acts of denigration, the rest of us should not be complicit.
We should have the courage to speak out on social media against posts that vilify immigrants in our midst.
When possible, we should counter wrong perceptions, after educating ourselves about the facts from authoritative sources. People should be reminded they might want to distinguish any unhappiness with the COVID-19 situation from immigrant policies and these from the immigrant.
We should also highlight the many contributions immigrants make to our society.
Even if our comments are outnumbered by the number of negative sentiments, the presence of some supportive posts can go a long way in signalling to the discriminated that they have allies and are not alone.
We have worked too hard and far too long to build this city, teeming with diversity, to allow COVID-19 to threaten our multicultural way of life. We might not see eye-to-eye on policies but let us persist to have a dialogue on these issues, without the hate.
Together, we will rid ourselves of COVID-19 and the “other” virus.
Mathew Mathews is Head, Social Lab, and Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. Shamil Zainuddin is a Research Associate at the Institute of Policy Studies.
Listen to Mathew Mathews and other observers discuss what young people in Singapore want out of conversations regarding race on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast: