Racism and Covid-19
Allan Shafer

It is well established that hated or painful aspects of ourselves – often unconscious – can be split off from our individual or group identity and attributed to “other” individuals or groups. This need to find a bad ‘other’ to attract unwanted characteristics or feelings has characterised prejudice since time immemorial.

Hence racism seems endemic to all identified human groups. Australia has a long and continuous history of (disavowed) racism that originated towards First Peoples. This has shifted regularly in the last 60 years with waves of migrants, between Jews, continental Europeans, Asians – Vietnamese, Chinese, Indians; and Muslims. These groups differ from those with an Anglo-Saxon heritage, but racism occurs between all identity groups.

Against the background of these well-established understandings of the dynamics of group behaviour, we must ask ourselves why the rate and intensity of racism has increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic?

The broader global context and currents before the pandemic produced the unleashing of racism in Trump’s America; international anti- Muslim acts; anti-Western terrorism; increased anti-Semitism in Europe, America and Australia; the rise of authoritarian nationalism in many countries.

Of grave current concern is the rise of far-right white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists both stoking anxiety and hate in the name of either love or salvation and offering their devotees omnipotent and grandiose solutions. They do this while whipping up mob-behaviour and in the pandemic, obstructing community health measures, or demanding “religious freedom” to worship counter to health regulations and actively encouraging their followers to flout self-distancing measures while promising “Jesus’ protection” from the Covid-19 virus. For example:

‘A phantom plague’: America’s Bible Belt played down the pandemic …dozens of pastors are dead”

What social dynamics might religious fundamentalism and racism have in common? And why has the pandemic unleashed and intensified such primitive conduct? These are worthwhile topics for socioanalytic thinkers to examine.

In brief, racists and religious extremists share a number of characteristics, the most notable of which is that they are anti-thinking, and anti-complexity. In the face of intense global anxiety they offer simple solutions that treat thinking with contempt and offer hope, safety and salvation. Philip Stokoe describes what he calls “fundamentalist thinking” (or more accurately ‘non-thinking’), in his penetrating papers and broadcasts:

The Covid-19 pandemic is a very useful vehicle to which these power-seeking movements can attach: an invisible, terrifying enemy, identified with China (and indiscriminately therefore, associated with anyone of Asian appearance – ‘other/foreigner ’). And maliciously and deliberately called the “Chinese virus”.

And how does the pandemic become associated with anti-Semitism? As Gareth Narunsky describes in a recent piece in the Australian Jewish News (April 30th 2020).

“Accusations that Jews created coronavirus, that affected Jews are being punished, and calling COVID-19 the “Jew flu” are just some examples of antisemitism expressed online by Australians during the current pandemic. It comes amid a global trend of antisemitism tied to the outbreak, with Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz saying this week that antisemitism, which was already on the rise, “has gotten another boost”.

The Dynamics of Racism and COVID19: A GRA Blog
Greg Cook, Chair GRA Directorate

This new GRA sub-project The Dynamics of Racism and COVID19 – aims to explore racism in ourselves and society, continuing an existing GRA project, with particular reference to COVID19.

The blog will be updated weekly and make reference to basic assumption behaviour, the role of familiar socio analytic mechanisms of splitting or ‘othering’, denial, disavowal and other dynamics and the exposure of these in the response of Australian and other international communities to the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has more clearly exposed enduring institutional racism, not just in Australia but worldwide – in Trump’s sobriquet for COVID 19 as ‘the Chinese virus’; the disregard for day-wage workers in the Indian lockdown; confusion about how Australia responds to migrant workers; abuse of East-Asian medical workers in Australia and elsewhere; the lack of medical care in remote aboriginal communities in Australia and so on. Internationally we have seen significant linkage of Covid19 mortality and morbidity with ethnicity, race, privilege and class.

These xenophobic responses are common across the world, revealing ‘social and political fractures within communities, with racialised and discriminatory responses to fear, disproportionately affecting marginalised groups’. This is felt particularly keenly within health systems that are inter-dependent with the broader social systems that they support and are well described in this letter in a recent edition of The Lancet.


Societal fault lines have been laid bare and deepened. A barely managed tension in our trust and mistrust of institutions has also become even more apparent – including our political leaders’ reliance and our dependence on expert medical advice.

The Covid 19 pandemic has thrown up many questions of relevance and interest to group relations.

  • What has Covid19 revealed about long-denied social defences embedded in accepted 21st century views about authority and public policy – in political leadership, health care funding, income support, wages policies and globalisation?
  • What is the role of the media and other institutions or groups (including GRA) in:
    • Mobilising denial, fear, isolation and other ‘paranoid-schizoid’ responses
      Hoarding, angry scepticism, defiance of social distancing requirements ….
    • Appropriate leadership and followership / dependency combined with careful management of interdependence and other ‘depressive position’ responses.
      e.g. Following expert medical advice, social distancing, financial support, mutual concern and care-giving, volunteering, shared creativity, business resilience and innovation, etc.
  • How do our institutions respond to the pandemic and what does this tell us about the phantasies they hold about themselves and on our behalf?

This blog will explore these and other issues over the next several weeks.

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