COVID-19 crisis triggers EU racism against Asians, rights agency says

Two women wearing protective face masks push red shopping carts in Paolo Sarpi street, the center of the Chinese community, 'Chinatown', in Milan, northern Italy, on 24 February 2020. [EPA/PAOLO SALMOIRAGO]

There has been a spike in recorded cases of racist abuse against people perceived to be of Chinese or Asian descent in the European Union amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) said in a report published on Wednesday (8 April).

In the report, FRA outlined the areas in which certain government measures across the EU to combat the spread of COVID-19 could have “profound implications” for fundamental rights.

One such particular concern, the study said, is the rise in racist attacks against people judged to be of Chinese or Asian descent.

“The COVID-19 pandemic triggered an increase in racist and xenophobic incidents against
people (perceived to be) of Chinese or Asian origin, including verbal insults, harassment, physical aggression and online hate speech,” the report stated, adding that such demographics in Europe have also faced discrimination in accessing health services.

Moreover, the study noted that certain politicians and public figures across member states have been using “derogatory and xenophobic language towards people of Chinese and Asian origin.”

In this vein, the report highlights a series of wrongdoings by EU politicians, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s conflation of the crisis with illegal migration, and in Slovakia, where Marian Kotleba, leader of the People’s Party Our Slovakia, stated that “due to the open borders within the EU […], there are many migrants wandering across Europe without any control. And those people brought the coronavirus to Europe.”

Data protection

Moreover, FRA said, shortfalls have surfaced in the online ecosystem, too. The spread of disinformation has been ‘widespread’ across the EU, and there have also been issues with the way the outbreak has been managed by European data protection authorities.

So far, all member states of the EU have issued advice on the collection of personal data amid the coronavirus outbreak, but FRA believes there is a lack of harmonisation in the approach national DPAs have taken.

“Data protection authorities in member states have issued guidance about how employers should go about gathering information or using information so that they don’t break the general data protection regulation,” Joanna Goodey, head of FRA’s Research and Data Unit, told EURACTIV.

“When we actually collected the evidence on guidance given by the DPAs, it’s clear that this is not harmonised across the member states.”

“It’s clear that this is also an area that European data protection supervisor will also step up to, because of course employers and other actors want to know what action they can take or not take,” Goodey added.

In a related area, the European Data Protection Supervisor said on Monday (6 April), that the EU should establish its own “pan-European COVID-19 mobile application” due to divergences in current app developments across the bloc.

More broadly, FRA’s report, which has been published following consultation with researchers across all 27 EU member states, highlights other threats to fundamental rights associated with areas ranging from social life, education, and work to freedom of movement, asylum and migration, with particular risks to the most vulnerable in society.

“There are particular concerns about the impact of both the virus itself and measures to contain it within particular groups, such as older people, children, among the Roma community, migrants and asylum seekers, the homeless, people in institutions, and those in prison,” FRA Policy Analyst Martha Stickings, told EURACTIV.

“Governments ought to be taking into account the specific impact on these groups.”

The rights agency will continue to monitor various malpractices across the EU and publish further reports over the next few months on the state of play with regards to the upholding of fundamental rights amid the ongoing outbreak.

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