Now is the time to stand in solidarity, not project blame on the ‘Other’

Olga Cielemęcka
TIAS Postdoctoral Researcher
Department of Gender Studies

Novelist Arundhati Roy suggests that we might think about the current COVID-19 pandemic, a deadly global health crisis which has been disorganising planetary life and exacerbating social inequalities for over a year now, as a portal. She suggests we experiment with thinking about it as an opportunity to imagine the world otherwise; an opening through which peeks a future different – kinder – than the present we are living in: ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’ (1).

According to Roy, this is a moment of reckoning – we can either choose to reorganize the surrounding social reality and the world of relationships that composes it, or we can choose hatred, bigotry, and old prejudice. Many are choosing the latter. The number of racist and xenophobic aggressions related to the COVID-19 outbreak, targeting particularly people of East and Southeast Asian descent, has been on the rise. Coronavirus hate crimes are now devastating communities, breaking the bonds between us, enlivening the zombies of the persistent narratives about the other, the foreigner, the stranger as disease-ridden, toxic, contagious – a carrier of a threat. Since at least the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, we understand that the inner workings of the process of stigmatization consist of discursively establishing an association between the groups presumably or factually affected by a plague with the plague itself. And it is deadly. Now this lethal rhetoric comes back in expressions such as the ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘Chinese virus’ (2), in microaggressions and attacks on people of Asian descent, as well as other racialized or immigrant members of our communities. I was devasted to hear about the mass shootings on March 16, 2021 in which eight people including six women of Asian descent were murdered in Atlanta, Georgia, United States – a city where I once lived, and which I grew to love and care about. A city in the American South scarred by the Jim Crow laws but one which also has a long, proud history of standing up to racist hate, of Black organizing and resistance, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. If the pandemic were to serve as a portal leading to a different future, we must choose which histories and legacies to build it on and which ones to denounce and turn away from.

In Finland, residents and Finns of Asian descent have been reporting discrimination and racism prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic (3). In mid- March 2021, the University of Turku informed about a cluster of infections that broke out in the student village affecting primarily University of Turku ‘international students’ and ‘exchange students’. Media reporting further highlighted this particular piece of information (4). It implicitly blamed students and their alleged irresponsible behaviour, including partying, for the outbreak rather than explaining the practical impossibility to physically distance in student accommodation where facilities such as kitchens are shared. With tv cameras rolling and increased policing, the residents of the students’ village were made to feel like it is their fault. One student has shared with me that they are ashamed of having tested positive for COVID. It sends chills down my spine to think that anyone would be made to feel that way.

As a migrant and a member of an international academic community, I know the thrill and excitement of being in a new environment but also the loneliness that comes with it. That is why, as members of the University of Turku community we should pay particular attention to making sure that our colleagues and students who may not have family (however defined) and/or extensive social networks in the area are taken care of, safe, and comfortable.

The rhetoric which presents ‘international’, ‘exchange’ or otherwise foreign bodies as vectors of infection perpetuates racist, xenophobic, and anti-migrant sentiments. One recent news article, quoting the Mayor of Turku, advised on avoiding the areas of the student village and Varissuo. Varissuo, being an immigrant neighborhood of Turku with an estimated 32% of residents with non-Finnish background, is also one of the largest residential districts in Turku, which leaves me wondering who is the intended recipient and the imagined readership of such message? COVID-19 related racism and xenophobia affects not only East and Southeast Asian communities but also Black and Brown communities in Finland and non-white Finns. It operates through externalizing responsibility – blame – for the pandemic onto those imagined as ‘others’ (non-white and/or non-Finnish/Nordic). As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies feelings of fatigue and uncertainty, the worst possible response to this crisis is to mobilise the deadly, racist politics that break us apart through introducing a cut between a certain ‘us’ – the presumably healthy body of the population and the sick/ening ‘them’ (5).

Instead, we need careful words and caring solidarities as well as a clear and loud condemnation of racist and xenophobic language and violence. Now is the time for solidarity and mutual aid.




All blog posts represent the personal views of their authors and not that of TCSMT and TIAS.

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