On May 3, Radio New Zealand reported that the Human Rights Commission had recorded a sharp spike in racism in the midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic. The Commission had received over 250 complaints related to COVID-19 and that 82 were race-related. The majority targeted were those of `Asian/Chinese’ descent with the second highest target community being Indians. It was interesting to note in the article that `Muslims’ accounted for 28% of the `race-related complaints’.  As we know, `Muslims’ are those whose faith is Islam. `Muslim’ is not a racial classification.   

It may or may not be an appropriate time for immigrant communities to talk about racism and or question White Supremacy in New Zealand. We have had several opportunities over the years, but none as strong as the one that emerged after the March 15, 2019 massacre of Muslims as they prayed.  It wasn’t a `lone gunman’ as is often touted, but a representation of prevailing White Supremacy and its vicious tentacles of racism, fascism and bigotry.

Politicians described that day as one of New Zealand’s `darkest days’. With the outbreak of COVID-19, we are continuing to experience darker days. When we need to unite, racism appears to have become a deterrent. Our country continues to stumble in the dark, choosing to blink its way through racism, when what is needed is a brutal awakening of our consciousness as a nation.  `Unconscious bias’ should no longer be an excuse when it comes to racism.

Racism in Aotearoa, New Zealand is something that the Indian diaspora have felt and inhaled from the time they first set foot into this beautiful country. Discrimination on the basis of race continues to manifest in various forms.  Any denial of that by our community only gives further to racism. We live in a nation of a White majority, where Non-Whites are seen as a minority. While we react with anger and dismay to the frequent and inflammatory ranting of politicians targeting sections of immigrant communities of colour, it is also time for us as a community to take stock and have a long hard look at ourselves.

India experienced colonisation and White Supremacy for over 200 years and generations of Indians after 1947 continue to experience that in many ways. We continue to obsess over fair skin and privilege those who are fairer than the rest. The caste system split us horizontally on the basis of our birth long before the colonisers invaded India. After their arrival we let them split us vertically in the name of religion. A colleague who had by chance got into a conversation with a Hindu taxi driver in Christchurch was appalled at his vitriolic reaction to the mosque shootings of Muslims.

I am a Kiwi-Indian who once had a long journalism career in India. I had the experience of reporting on the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993 and the oft occurring Hindu-Muslim riots that claimed the lives of several hundreds, both Hindus and Muslims. While reporting on such sporadic episodes of violence and terrorism, I often came face to face with angry men brandishing knives, swords and sawn off shot-guns. I remember visiting areas under military curfew, walking on roads splattered with blood and bones, while dodging acid bulbs thrown at random, from rooftops. I spoke to Hindu families whose houses were set afire and with Muslim women who were gang-raped. It is 2020; and we continue to be divided on the basis of religion.

MP Shane Jones was recently called out for his remarks against Indian students. But in his defense he said his comments were based on what sections of the Indian community had told him! I would not challenge the validity of his defense. As a community we do have a penchant for putting each other down when it suits us, we can be divisive in our language and behavior, we are capable of speaking disparagingly of others and are often `racist’ among our own. So, let us not pretend that we are all united in how we think, act and behave. Let us call ourselves out, before taking umbrage to what others say about us. Only then can we overcome White Supremacy and racism.

The racial attacks during COVID-19 has once again reminded us about our own fragility.

The tragic human loss and suffering brought about by the virus and the endless grief and trauma it has inflicted and will impose on people for generations is unimaginable. At the risk of sounding callous (which I certainly don't mean to) here are a few thoughts from my Lockdown-Alert Level bubble:

  • COVID19  has brought out the oft suppressed creativity in us... not just in learning how to survive during lockdown, but in making the isolation splendid
  • It has given cabin fever many new definitions
  • It has cleared our skies of pollution so that we may breathe better and be able to see the horizon
  • It has helped wild animals reclaim what was once their natural habitat, and which humans had taken over 
  • It has reminded us that `social-distancing’ is a privilege that not all people can afford
  • It has taught oil barons and oil companies that alternate forms of fuel may become the new norm
  • It has taught countries the importance of being self-sustaining and relying on their people and their resources, rather than on import
  • It has taught greedy capitalist entities that massive profits can any day turn to dust
  • It has taught the rich and powerful that no amount of wealth or power will keep them immortal
  • It has taught us that we should not take the world and what we have been blessed with, for granted
  • It has reminded us that we have a duty of care to everyone around us, and not just to ourselves
  • It has kept the world war-free
  • It has taught us that guns and bombs are no match for a virus from the wild that decides to wreak havoc
  • It has taught us to respect all living beings, most importantly animals In the wild
  • It is a harbinger of the climate change we were all hoping for....sad as it is

Most importantly, it has taught us that with all our collective intelligence, ingenuity and wisdom, we as humans are so very, very, vulnerable….and that only by staying united with all our diversity, can we gain in strength!

Shila Nair is a counsellor and Senior Advisor with Shakti NZ -  non-profit community organisation serving migrant and refugee women of Asian, African and Middle Eastern origin. The views expressed are the author's alone.