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Countries are using the coronavirus to repress and persecute

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, I am deeply concerned over increasing reports of scapegoating of members of ethnic and religious communities, as some take advantage of this crisis to stoke the trifecta of xenophobia, racism, and religious intolerance.   

To meet the challenge of the COVID-19 crisis, we must courageously unite around our shared humanity and commitment to protecting and defending human rights for all.  This is not only the right thing to do but also the only way to ensure our communities and our countries emerge safely and grow stronger in the wake of this devastating pandemic.   

History provides many examples of how stress and uncertainty foster hate during a public health emergency.  Hate distracts from the real risks and challenges of mitigating the spread of disease and gives power to voices of stigma, discrimination, and violence.  

In the 14th century, the Black Death unleashed blame and violence against Catalans, Roma, and, most especially, Jews.  In the 20th century, dehumanizing Nazi propaganda falsely vilifying Jews as carriers of typhus was one of the rationalizations for their mass murder during the Holocaust.  Recently, East Asian populations were targets of discrimination during the SARS outbreak, while the Ebola outbreaks have stigmatized West Africans.  

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, I have seen credible reports of violence and discrimination across the globe. Autocrats are using COVID-19 as a pretext for repression. Extremist groups are using COVID-19 to advance an agenda of hate, increasing fear of others in order to preserve and increase their own power. Governments have imposed additional restrictions on already marginalized ethnic communities, such as the Roma in EuropePersons with disabilities around the world have faced further marginalization increased difficulties in accessing information and health care and LGBTI persons have been arrested and harassed. Conspiracy theories have fueled a rise in anti-Semitism in France and Germany and troubling incidents of anti-Muslim rhetoric and activity have been reported in India and Western Europe, along with anti-Shia sentiments in some predominantly Sunni countries, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Burmese government continues to systematically restrict health care for Rohingya individuals and freedom of movement, preventing them from seeking life-saving help.   

Despite this, history also tells us that our response to difficult circumstances can be to rise above them together. And in the United States and around the world we are also seeing examples every day of faith communities stepping up to help, demonstrating in words and actions that societies are more resilient when we put our collective efforts to overcoming crises like COVID-19.  

The organization United Sikhs have fed more than one million people in need around the world; the global Jewish refugee resettlement agency HIAS is providing phone and video-based mental health services for refugees in Panama; Christian community-run hospitals are offering services to COVID-19 affected patients in Bangladesh, and a mosque in Istanbul has been turned into a food bank to help those in need.  

Faith leaders, including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, have issued clarion calls to equip healthcare workers with the water, sanitation, hygiene and personal protective equipment they need to keep themselves safe and effectively treat patients.    

Pandemics can spawn hostility or discrimination, but they can also birth unity of purpose, compassion, and collective action against a common foe – the disease and its costs.  Our daily lives can serve as examples of people from all walks of life working together and supporting each other.  

Prejudice, xenophobia, and violence are not inevitable and do nothing to protect public health.  They will not further governments’ aims in stopping the spread of the virus nor will they protect communities, neighborhoods, families, and individuals. Together, through carefully considered, unified action, we can overcome this pandemic and future challenges.    

We must not wait for more incidents or tragedies to learn the value of mutual respect.  While we are focused on working together to overcome this pandemic, we cannot let things like hate and intolerance seize this moment. Together, through our common humanity, we can stop the violence, end the discrimination, and emerge stronger from this pandemic than we were before.  

Sam Brownback is The United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. 

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