The blame game won't cut it with Covid
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The blame game won't cut it with Covid

In this Dec 20 file photo, 2,000 Myanmar migrant workers wait in front of a dormitory near the Thai Union Market in Samut Sakhon as health officials conduct Covid-19 tests.  Arnun Chonmahatrakool
In this Dec 20 file photo, 2,000 Myanmar migrant workers wait in front of a dormitory near the Thai Union Market in Samut Sakhon as health officials conduct Covid-19 tests.  Arnun Chonmahatrakool

Taweesilp Visanuyothin, the spokesman for the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), was right in pleading for tolerance and empathy amid anti-Myanmar hate speech and discrimination after the recent surge of new infections centred around Samut Sakhon shrimp market.

His articulate speech has won praise for its sympathetic and inclusive tone. There was even a viral clip depicting Myanmar immigrants saluting him for his compassion. Yet this pandemic is a test for all members of society at many levels. And we need a lot more than a PR drive to fight Covid-19-related hate speech. We need to understand the conditions underlying the hate speech situation and their adverse consequences, as well as a set of best practices for all concerned.

The situation is similar to rampant incidents in the early days of the pandemic when ethnic Chinese, or even just Asians in general, were blamed for spreading the virus.

In many cases, such discrimination was grounded in misinformation and rumour. Nevertheless, this information pollution spread virally particularly in the online sphere, giving rise to an unprecedented phenomenon -- the world's first "infodemic". In some instances, this infodemic even led, unfortunately, to hate crimes and other forms of violence.

Evidently, Covid-related hate speech is present in mainstream media as well as online social media. Though it is often propagated by ordinary media users, its consequences are more severe when it is delivered by political leaders, opinion leaders, or social influencers, whether deliberately or not.

In the case of Myanmar migrant workers, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha did point out that illegal immigration was behind the outbreak since the labourers did not pass through border checkpoints, so did not receive proper health screening.

Although his speech did not contain any incendiary elements, this factual statement could also be construed as a first step in a blame game where minorities and the underprivileged are the usual suspects.

Not only because they are perceived as "others" or "outsiders" in society but also because their living conditions make them most prone to the disease.

According to the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), migrant labour is most clearly bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Due to business shutdowns and mass layoffs, workers who cannot afford to return home have to stay together in cramped spaces to save on costs. This makes social distancing and disease control impossible.

Yet no one paid attention or showed much sympathy for their difficult position.

Confronted by the economic reality of the pandemic, employers chose to dispense first with migrant labour, while in an economically counterintuitive move, angry and ignorant shop owners refused to serve them. Some with more extreme views even advocated violence as a means of persuading them to leave for good.

Prejudice is not uncommon in the face of a human catastrophe such as the pandemic. In early October, concerns mounted in Jordan about growing stigmatisation and hate speech against the migrant population after 600 Bangladeshi workers tested positive for Covid-19. Some of the offensive comments against these migrant workers went so far as demanding them to be buried, killed and deported.

Without a doubt, Covid-19 related hate speech and associated disinformation have serious implications. It has even been noted that the infodemic travels faster than the pandemic. The effects can be seen in the short as well as long term.

In the short term, those targeted are likely to experience threats or violence. They may also be exposed to social exclusion and stigmatisation, and deterred them from accessing medical care.

Unless there is mandatory testing, this vulnerable group is likely to evade the procedure for fear of being labelled and discriminated against. As a result, everyone will suffer an increased risk of infection since these asymptomatic cases will not be medically identified and undergo proper quarantine.

In the long term, the discrimination against these marginalised targets could heighten the already extensive effects of the disease on their communities and exacerbate underlying social and economic inequalities.

With the rift becoming even wider, social cohesion is likely to be eroded, compromising solidarity and trust which are essential attributes to tackle the spread of the virus.

To remedy the situation or prevent further harm, all stakeholders ought to play their respective role. While public education and social campaigns are needed to lower fear and panic among those on social media, media organisations must make sure their members abide by ethical reporting and not resort to incitement or stigmatisation.

The best resource, to date, is the widely-cited United Nations' Guidance Note on Addressing and Countering Covid-19 Hate speech, circulated online since May 2020.

The note emphasises the need for counter-speech, the taking down of extreme hate messages and posts, and online monitoring by users as well as social campaigns to educate people.

Dominant online platform operators such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube must also be vigilant against reports of hate speech by their members and take proper action.

Similarly, tech firms that operate popular chat apps like Line or online forums like should also make it they will not tolerate hate speech and disinformation.

Furthermore, all Covid-19-related information must be handled with data privacy in mind.

Although the recently promulgated Personal Data Protection Act is not yet in total effect, its underlying principles must be fully abided by to safeguard the rights of all involved during this humanitarian crisis.

This includes components such as consent to data collection and legally acceptable collection practices, especially regarding the use and disclosure of personal information.

The privacy and security of this information must also be assured and should include active checks for data breaches.

Without data protection safeguards, we will likely see a repeat of an episode in April when the first state quarantine measure was abruptly enforced.

Then, 158 passengers arriving from overseas, mostly Thais who were already in transit, refused to comply upon landing at Suvarnabhumi Airport, claiming lack of notification and insufficient information. The names of these passengers were leaked to the press, together with their phone numbers and addresses.

This led to intense bullying of the passengers and their families. Notably, several mass media organisations published this list without fear of repercussion or concern for PDPA restrictions.

With so many remedial efforts including vaccination underway, this pandemic will likely be resolved in the next decade. But the pernicious effects of the disease's multiple cycles will likely last longer and impair human relations for generations if left unaddressed.

And the only real and lasting solutions will be found if we all take mutual responsibility for the mishaps and refuse to play the blame game.

Professor Pirongrong Ramasoota, PhD, teaches and researches on communication issues at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University.

Pirongrong Ramasoota

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Pirongrong Ramasoota, PhD, is a professor of communication at Chulalongkorn University and a senior research fellow at LIRNEasia

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