When the coronavirus started spreading earlier this year, a second pandemic developed simultaneously: that of corona-racism. Right-wing extremism researcher Judith Rahner spoke with EURACTIV Germany about the connectivity of racist narratives to centuries-old prejudices and why this racism could run rampant longer than the virus itself.
Judith Rahner heads the Gender and Right-Wing Extremism Unit at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation.
Why have we seen an increase in racism since the outbreak of the pandemic?
We are currently experiencing an exceptional social situation in which many people feel a loss of control. Such a situation is predestined to make people vulnerable to conspiracy ideological and racist narratives.
What role does scapegoating play here?
In a social crisis, a dynamic is let loose in which people get scared. This is also the beginning of the search for scapegoats because it is much easier to see who is to blame for the situation than to look at oneself and take responsibility.
What forms of racism have you encountered in the course of your work at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation in recent weeks?
We at the foundation saw different phases in which different racisms were circulating.
In the first phase, racist hostility was often linked to the question of how the virus could have reached Germany. Anti-Asian racism, in particular, skyrocketed at the beginning of the crisis and was a pandemic in its own right. This included racist comments and verbal violence, even coughing and spitting on people, insults on social media or discrimination in public transport, right up to physical attacks.
Occasionally, there were also attacks on Italian restaurants, and refugee accommodation was also placed under general suspicion. All non-Germans were blamed, so to speak, for bringing the virus to Germany.
What assumptions underlie these attributions of blame?
The image of the “German national body” (“Deutsche Volkskörper”) plays an important role. The story that this body, which is actually strong and immune, is attacked by parasites or generally from outside, has been around for centuries. It is being reinterpreted in the current situation.
And in the second phase?
Here, it was more a question of finding a culprit in case there were renewed outbreaks in Germany. In the stories of right-wing groups, the accusation was then that especially refugees and Muslims would not follow “our German rules” and “we all have to pay for it,” and that migrants from southeastern European would bring the virus to Germany.
Surely this corresponds to what we can currently observe in Berlin-Neukölln or in Göttingen, where Roma families are placed under a kind of general suspicion?
Exactly, the racisms tie in with centuries-old hostilities, here above all with anti-Chinese enemy images or deeply rooted resentments against the Roma. For example, when non-German people are described as unclean and unhygienic. This is a racist narrative that can, of course, have an enormous impact in times of increased hygiene rules.
For the right-wing scene, coronavirus outbreaks are a welcome opportunity to pick up on these narratives, which are still widespread in German-speaking countries. When the coronavirus breaks out in a house where supposedly only Roma families live, then, of course, everyone “knows” equally who is to blame. Socio-economic factors are no longer taken into account, but only a link with origin is made.
This pattern can also be seen in other European countries, where governments have sealed off entire settlements to suggest to their own population that everything is under control.
Such racist narratives are also fired up by politicians, like when Donald Trump speaks of the “Wuhan virus” or when the Premier of North Rhine-Westphalia states publicly that the outbreaks in his state are caused by Romanian and Bulgarian workers in meatpacking plants. What effect does such rhetoric have?
Such statements give a further boost to racist narratives. This must not happen. By finding guilty parties in the “evil meat baron” and the “foreign workers”, [North Rhine Premier Armin] Laschet evades responsibility himself. At the same time, people don’t ask further, because he serves the stereotypes.
I also consider Laschet’s statements to be very dangerous because he argues in principle that this is a consequence of European freedom of movement. And that, in turn, is water on the mills of the AfD and other extreme right-wing forces and therefore politically extremely dangerous.
Will these stereotypes and racism persist in the long term?
Yes, I don’t think that the racist ideas that have been broken up again in recent months will simply disappear again. Since the “legitimacy” of racism this time is health, the life and health of every individual is at stake. The coronavirus is being instrumentalised to fuel racist prejudices, mobilise fears and build up enemy images.
Moreover, one should not underestimate that the big end may yet come. Once the economic consequences of the crisis can be fully foreseen, we will see that the search for scapegoats will become even more widespread. In any case, we would do well to think in the long-term about how to recapture such things through prevention efforts.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]