Narratives blaming minorities for spreading Covid-19 are not new — instead, they reflect a wider pattern of scapegoating
Blaming marginalised communities for society’s problems deflects attention away from where it is needed.
The Covid-19 pandemic has birthed a dangerous cocktail of anxiety, conspiracy theories, and racism. The UK witnessed a sharp rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the pandemic’s initial stages, in direct response to narratives describing Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”. Fake stories blaming Muslims for spreading the virus have circulated on social media, alongside antisemitic conspiracy theories blaming Jews for creating Covid-19 as part of a global plot.
These trends are not unique; instead, they reflect a wider pattern in public discourse, the media, and policymaking in which marginalised and minority groups — particularly BAME groups and migrants — are blamed for various social issues. This pattern of scapegoating has implications not only for discrimination and hate crime, but also for how the scapegoated groups are treated by policy and public services.
For example, Muslims are a popular target for scapegoating, with issues like terrorism, female genital mutilation and “grooming gangs” regularly treated as “Muslim problems”: an inherent result of Muslim religious beliefs and “culture”. This has an impact not only on public discussion, but also in measures such as counterterrorism policy, which are often accused of disproportionately targeting Muslims for surveillance and profiling. Migrants are also a common target, with a distinct influence on public political opinions. The EU referendum in particular provided a legitimised space for anxieties about waiting lists in the NHS, reductions in public services, housing shortages, and overcrowded classrooms to be projected onto migrants and “foreigners”.
On the higher level of policymaking, scapegoating has the problematic effect of deflecting focus away from the structural problems that underlie many of the issues that marginalised communities are blamed for. For example, narratives blaming disproportionate Covid-19 infection rates amongst black people on ‘self-inflicted’ medical conditions like obesity have served to deflect attention away from the devastating impact of systemic racism in exacerbating health inequalities. Similarly, patterns of blame serve to mask the role of policy failures — for instance, the scapegoating of migrants for socioeconomic problems in the UK has been criticised for glossing over factors like a lack of funding for the NHS and failures in public planning policy.
Blaming marginalised communities is not only seemingly easier than addressing the gaps in existing policy and the structural causes of various issues, but it also often serves to justify the amplification of exclusionary policies and repressive measures against already marginalised groups. For example, narratives about the negative impact of immigration on health, national security and the economy have played key roles in the birth of harmful policies as part of the ‘hostile environment’, such as the increased use of detention centres and limits on access to employment, housing, and healthcare. As such, scapegoating serves only to take the focus away from developing real solutions. For example, a preoccupation with Muslim men and grooming gangs distracts from the need to address the underfunding of community, healthcare and violence-against-women services. Similarly, relying on hard-line immigration policy to help with economic insecurity takes attention away from the need for changes to the welfare system and more funding for public services.
As such, blaming marginalised communities — whether for the spread of disease, for terrorism, or for economic insecurity — does not only harm those who are facing the backlash. It also prevents us from investigating the real causes of the issues that we are facing.
At JAN Trust, we work to encourage, empower and educate marginalised communities, and advocate for solutions both nationally and locally that can help all communities to thrive.