Recently when I was heading home from work, a man on the bus pushed me up against the bus window and asked if I was from China. Physically trapped and scared, I told him that I’m Swedish-Korean. Thankfully, that’s when another passenger on the bus intervened.
I wish I could say that this is the only instance in which I have been singled out during the COVID-19 pandemic for being of Asian descent. But it’s not. Sometimes it’s people covering their mouths when I get on the subway, other times shuffling away to the end of the train, as far away from me as physically possible.
In Sweden, a country that prides itself on tolerance and liberal attitudes, COVID-19 has increasingly become an excuse for xenophobic and racist attacks and microaggressions against people of Asian descent. Individuals have reportedly been yelled at, harassed, asked to leave public transportation, and shunned. There have been reports of children being bullied, even by children at kindergarten.
Similar abuses have occurred in other European countries; people of Asian descent have experienced verbal and physical attacks, vicious beatings, online harassment, and even boycotts of their businesses. Unfortunately, this is part of a rise in Europe – and globally – in anti-Asian abuses spurred by derogatory language used by politicians and media. In Sweden, politicians have not fuelled this abuse, but the government response has been too weak.
Racism has sometimes spilled over to other groups. Following reports that several Swedish-Somalian people were among the country’s first COVID-19-related deaths, this community was the target of racist abuse online by people expressing happiness about the deaths.
Sweden and Europe have never been free from racism, as evidenced by the rise of far-right political parties across the region and xenophobic responses to the recent arrival of significant numbers of migrants. But there seems to have been a significant increase as COVID-19 spreads around the world.
The heads of three pan-European human rights institutions recently called on governments to protect victims of hatred triggered by the pandemic. European Union and international law imposes obligations on states to combat racism and xenophobia.
Governments, including Sweden, should act immediately to protect individuals and communities who may be targets of COVID-19-related racist abuse, and should investigate all reported incidents and hold perpetrators accountable. Politicians should not just avoid spreading slurs, but should debunk racist misconceptions about COVID-19 and explicitly condemn racist responses to the pandemic.