People gather on a street in the 'Little Africa' district in Guangzhou, where pandemic-fueled racism has been reported. File Photo: AFP

In a single 24-hour period between May 6 and 7, an elderly Asian woman was kicked in the face by teens in Minnesota, an Asian nurse was almost forced off a New York subway train, and two Asian women, one in in San Francisco and the other in Melbourne, were told to go back to where they came from.

Ethnic Chinese and other Asians are finding themselves in danger due to the association between Asians and Covid-19 among the non-Asian general public. Media reports of Asians attacked in the UK, US, and Canada by members of the general public have prompted local Asian communities to protest and to purchase equipment for self-protection. Many have expressed fear that their Asian appearance puts them in personal danger.

However, Asians are not the only victims of the negative association between race and Covid-19. Even as many ethnic Chinese become victims of assaults in Western countries, non-Asians have also found themselves under attack in China.

Last month saw the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou become a hotspot for xenophobia after international media reported that a number of the city’s African residents had become homeless against their will.

After local authorities announced the testing and quarantine of the city’s African community in the aftermath of a few Nigerians testing positive for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, local landlords quickly turned against their African tenants, kicking them out of their homes and hotels, even preventing them from entering shops to buy food and other daily necessities.

African politicians and diplomats quickly criticized the plight of their compatriots, forcing the Chinese government to resort to damage control to shore up what Chinese diplomats call a growing a “rock-solid” bilateral relationship.

The xenophobic attacks suffered by ethnic minorities, perpetuated by people claiming to be defending their homes from Covid-19, have brought about some soul-searching on the viability of multiethnic societies in the post-pandemic world.

The rapid emergence of a narrative that foreigners and people of other skin colors are “carriers of the disease” have reminded minorities that misfortunes such as this epidemic can strengthen a tribal mentality that reflexively rejects the outsider. As Korean-American actor John Cho opined, Covid-19 has shown Asians belonging in the US as “conditional,” always on the verge of being labeled as the dangerous “other” when misfortunes strike and scapegoats are needed.

For foreigners, that conditional nature of belonging in another society has shown itself to be institutionalized by the highest level of government as national authorities across the world take increasingly drastic steps to curb the spread of the epidemic.

The latest count shows more than 100 countries to have closed their borders to travelers from other countries affected by the epidemic, with few national governments detailing any specific dates or plans to lift foreign travel restrictions. Where possible, citizens finding themselves less than welcome abroad are rushing home, further reducing the number of foreigners in many countries.

Both grassroots and institutionalized skepticism toward embracing foreign residents is set to stay even after Covid-19 is contained. As experts warn of significant long-term economic damage from the epidemic, governments are grappling with the prospects of heightened unemployment for years to come.

The closure of borders and the resulting disruptions of supply chains have led to conclusions that the globalized network of globetrotting workers poses significant risks to individual companies and entire economies. With the general public in many countries blaming foreigners for taking jobs away from citizens in the best of times, authorities will face mounting pressure to keep foreigners out during the pandemic-induced recession.

The rush to blame foreigners for spreading Covid-19 bodes ill for the prospects of multiculturalism in the post-pandemic world. As governments seek to create self-sufficient supply chains as well as appease and even spread xenophobic sentiments at home, foreign professionals who make their homes around the world are bound to become collateral damage.

As foreign residents disappear from the streets of formerly cosmopolitan metropolises around the globe, the post-Covid-19 world may see a steady retreat of multiculturalism.

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Xiaochen Su

Xiaochen Su is a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo specializing in immigration issues. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.