COVID-19 Op-ed

Problematizing the ‘R’ in Virus: ‘Racism’ in the time of Covid-19

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Suthida Chang
University of Nottingham Ningbo
(MA International Relations and

International Business)

As Thailand moves into preparations for Phase 6 of reopening under the ‘New Normal’ (The Thaiger 2020), major cities like Bangkok, Phuket and Chiangmai are restarting their economic engines with events to bring the tourism industry back online . One jump-start event is the Bangkok Midnight Marathon (BMM) scheduled for 13th December 2020. In its third year, the BMM committee has introduced protection measures to keep runners safe from the virus. This includes temperature checks, social distancing and making mask-wearing compulsory — nothing over – demanding given the city’s growing acceptance for anti-COVID measures. The problem lies with the BMM’s online registration form.

Registration for the marathon, launched on 8 August, apparently allowed only Thai citizens to participate (Bangkok Post 2020). Following an unknown staff’s reply to an expat’s query on foreigners’ eligibility to participate in the race, it was confirmed that foreigners were barred from BMM 2020 to prevent possible viral transmissions. This led to an uproar by Netizens who bombarded BMM’s Facebook post, targeting the organizer’s racist policy. Fortunately, BMM later announced that registration for foreigners would begin on 13th August, and explained that the organizers never intended to offend anyone, especially expat racers who are a valued part of the running community in Thailand.

Netizens have accepted BMM’s apology but this incident points to a large and deeper-embedded crisis in Thai society. Racism — not just an unfortunate case of the under-informed mass but a sociopolitical failure that is publicly-endorsed by some of the nation’s political profiles. This rise of anti-Westerner sentiments has been building momentum since the start of the year, but came after a smaller surge of anti-Chinese-ness in the tourism sector when the virus first emerged. In March, Thai Health Minister Anutin proclaimed his unwelcome to Western tourists who refused to wear masks in Bangkok, claiming that “They need to be kicked out of Thailand!” (Asia Times, 2020). Shortly after, temples in Bangkok closed their doors to non-Thai worshippers and a national bus service required proof of Thai identification to board the bus (Atthakor, 2020).

Linking the incident to recent events — an Egyptian soldier’s tour of Rayong during his flight layover from China to Egypt resulted in more than 5000 people in the city being tested for COVID-19; in Bangkok, 364 people at a condominium were tested after a diplomat’s daughter was diagnosed with the virus (Judd 2020) — do these justify this ‘farang-fear’ and en masse segregation of foreigners from Thai society? If these foreigners have recent travel history — perhaps yes — but most expats have been in the country since the beginning of 2020. They were definitely in Thailand when the country enacted travel restrictions that are currently still in place. Moreover, the recent increase in the number of COVID-19 patients were from repatriated Thai citizens from abroad, not foreigners. Without doubt, these non-foreigner policies failed to take into account the real situation of expats in Thailand, but worked wonderfully to fuel mass xenophobia.

72 years after the creation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), we are still dealing with racism in our own backyards. When can institutions, government, private sectors and civil society recognize and uphold Article 2 of the UDHR (UN General Assembly, 1948) whereby “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…?” As the Thai government place its hopes on tourism to revive the national economy, and therefore attributing value to Western and East Asian tourists, the country needs to sort out its misinformation crisis. This includes communicating with locals to assess the fears of reopening Thailand’s borders, particularly in rolling out measures that address the concerns of a potential imported second wave of the pandemic.

However, this does not warrant a blanket policy that excludes all foreigners in the country from participating in local events, especially with such explicit ignorance. Thailand as a developing middle-income country cannot afford to close in on itself in this era of hyper-connectedness, nor can the nation backtrack on its ethics education. The COVID-19 heath crisis has evolved into a humanitarian crisis where misinformed persons use the pandemic to justify racial discrimination. This ‘New Normal’ that Thailand is gearing towards must work to eradicate racism — a sentiment that should have never been normalized.

References:

Atthakor, P 2020, ‘Thais-only’ policy is racism, pure and simple’, Bangkok Post Opinion, 13 June.  Available from: https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1934032/thais-only-policy-is-racism-pure-and-simple. [8 August 2020].

Bangkok Midnight Marathon 2020, Apology to Expat Runners, Facebook post, 7 August. Available from: https://www.facebook.com/Bangkokmidnightmarathon/posts/3257328027670132. [8 August 2020].

Bangkok Post 2020, ‘Marathon organisers relent, will allow expats’, Bangkok Post News, 8 August. Available from: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/1964627/foreigners-cry-racism-over-race-ban. [8 August 2020].

Ehrlich, RS 2020, ‘Thailand blames its Covid-19 crisis on Caucasians’, Asia Times, 20 March. Available from: https://asiatimes.com/2020/03/thailand-blames-its-covid-19-crisis-on-caucasians/. [8 August 2020].

Hutton, M 2020, ‘Thai health minister blames ‘dirty’ Western tourists for country’s coronavirus cases’, South China Morning Post, 25 March. Available from: https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/travel/article/3076758/thai-health-minister-blames-dirty-western-tourists. [8 August 2020].

Judd, A 2020, ‘Bangkok Midnight Marathon offers apology for banning foreigners from event but sparks heavy discussion on social media’, The Pattaya News, 8 August. Available from:
https://thepattayanews.com/2020/08/08/bangkok-midnight-marathon-offers-apology-for-banning-foreigners-from-event-but-sparks-heavy-discussion-on-social-media/. [8 August 2020].

The Thaiger 2020, ‘Phase 6 to be announced this week, will allow more groups to come to Thailand’, The Thaiger, 20 July. Available from: https://thethaiger.com/coronavirus/phase-6-to-be-announced-this-week-will-allow-more-groups-to-come-to-thailand. [8 August 2020].

UN General Assembly 1948, Universal declaration of human rights.  Available from: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/. [8 August 2020].


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