Thursday, August 13

Fighting the virus of hate

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EXPRESSIONS of hatred are unfortunately marring the many examples of humanity’s best qualities at this challenging moment for our species.

As the reality of constrained life continues to consolidate in most parts of the world (excepting a minority of countries that have decided against restrictions whether due to compelling scientific advice or undeterred authoritarian bravado), there has been no shortage of examples of people helping their fellow human beings, and indeed, animals as well.

Thanks to journalists and social media users, many heart-warming and life-saving stories have been shared, spurring many others to emulate (or outdo) contributions of money, supplies, time, effort, and inventiveness towards those who need it.  Much support has been given anonymously and without fanfare, a remarkable anachronism in a world where technology enables abundant gratification for sharers (or narcissists) and stalkers alike.

I have also been buoyed by the collaborative efforts of musicians and other performers who have uplifted the spirits of millions, particularly as performing artists were early to be hit by Covid-19, since their livelihoods depend on the ability of their customers to congregate in enclosed spaces.

As we appreciate each increase in the beauty of the human spirit, we must acknowledge the existence of malevolence too, including the deliberate spreading of false statements, abuse of names to divert donations, the impersonation of officials, the sale of used (or even poisoned) face masks, and the concealment of known symptoms.

But perhaps the most widespread human deficiency comes in the form of prejudice, bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. Some articles and videos I have been sent are essentially expletive-filled diatribes of ignorance and hatred.

The laziest example is blaming people of a certain race or ethnicity for being responsible for the creation or spread of the virus. In most cases this is an extension of racism that is already present, encapsulated in accusations (often false) that “they hate us”, “they want to destroy our country”, etc. This is particularly dangerous when adopted by leaders who, in seeking both geopolitical oneupmanship and diversions from their own incompetence domestically, accuse the other side of creating Covid-19 in a secret lab, or withholding supplies, or engineering the collapse of the economy.

All this has the effect of feeding conspiracy theories that then take on a life of their own — leading some to believe, even now, that the virus is a hoax — while enabling enthusiastic supporters to equate the evil actions of an enemy government with the (alleged) inherent deficiencies of that country’s people. Sadly, this phenomenon also makes it more difficult to make legitimate criticisms against a government, its leaders, its ideology or its policies, since every statement becomes weaponised.

And inasmuch as xenophobes seek to make others inferior, attempts are also made to make their own kind superior. And so you have videos circulating claiming that “our” religious community enjoys divine protection, or that “our” race possesses some kind of genetic immunity (though cuisine bestows a scientific patina), or that “our” country or state possesses natural defences. There is also considerable snobbery among elites who scoff at people who believe such things: to be constructive, education must override the temptation, no doubt in despair, to simply belittle them as idiots.

In the face of the indiscriminate and deadly power of Covid-19, the arrogance of such claims is quickly evaporating. One repeatedly observable trend, however, is that men seem to be hit harder than women, but whether the reasons are biological or cultural, it is the scientific method, not prejudice, that will provide answers.

There is also emerging data by now to see the impact of government policy on flattening the curve, and although it is no comfort to those who have lost loved ones, Malaysia is doing better than many other countries: Canada, of similar population size, seems to have experienced a worse trajectory thus far.

And so at times like this we must reflect upon the features of our country that have prepared us to face this moment: from the precepts of the Rukun Negara, to the rule of law afforded by our Federal Constitution, to the mutual respect and empathy that we are capable of showing to our compatriots, to the trust in our institutions, civil society and fellow citizens, accompanied by a healthy cynicism in our government.

Most Malaysians understand current priorities, but they are also observing: not just immediate government responses, but plans for recovery too. When a semblance of normal life resumes, so will politics: questions of legitimacy — of the legality of the government’s actions as well as its very basis — will be asked, all those personnel changes in statutory bodies and GLCs will be evaluated, and hopefully, racial and religious hate-mongering will continue to be resisted.

Ideas’ webinar on Delivering with Democracy is available at ideas.org.my.