When former United States president Donald Trump referred to Covid-19 with desriptors like the “Kung Flu Virus” and the “Chinese Virus” just because it originated from Wuhan, China, alarm bells rang in my head, I knew something bad was coming.
But it wasn’t until a year later that I realized just how bad, and how powerful and sinister those words were. A year later and we see the repercussions of those words with rising hate crimes against Asians in the United States.
But it’s also not hard to understand why these senseless things happen. Racism and violence go hand in hand with language. Racist rhetoric has always been successful in laying the groundwork for the violence, oppression, and segregation in the world.
Ironically, no one knows this better than Thailand.
When the first case of the B.1.617 Covid-19 variant, which was first discovered in India, was reported in Thailand, everyone was scared.
There is a reason to be scared — after all, our country is still stuck in one of the worst waves of the pandemic and it feels like light years away until the vaccines would arrive.
Over the past two months, reports and social media posts from all over the world have been talking about the devastation that has hit the South Asian nation and this new variant that is presumably behind it.
The world watched, in horror, as the virus spread like wildfire in India with over 23.5 million cases, 256,940 total deaths, and its healthcare system on the brink of collapse. On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified it as a global “variant of concern”, as preliminary and emerging studies have pointed to up to 60% higher transmissibility than the other known variants.
Of course, Thai media reacted in the only way it knows how.
“Indian Covid mutant enters Thailand,” headlined The Nation. “WHO officially calls Roti Virus the variant of concern,” added Siamrath.
Such racialized narratives have become so common and normalized it feels like second nature — to the point that even leading media agencies still think it’s okay to use it.
Disguised as a joke, but insidious and dehumanizing in nature, Thais have always been the most creative in coming up with words to undermine the humanity and dignity of “others” in order to stand tall when we feel threatened.
For those who may not understand, Roti is a kind of a flatbread that originated from the Indian subcontinent, and many Thais have historically held deep-rooted prejudice against those who do not fit the physical attributes of the elites: light-skinned and eastern features. Dark skin, in contrast, is associated with poverty and the working class: those who labor in the sun for the benefit of the elites, with little to no pay.
For a news agency to refer to a virus that has evolved in India and taken thousands of lives as “Roti” and “Indian Covid mutant”, despite knowing the racist attitudes Thais carry in “othering” racialized groups and people of color, is not only highly irresponsible, but incredibly harmful.
We see how harmful this rhetoric has been in the US and Trump. We should not suffer the same headlines because of the ignorance of people who should know better.
It is also shockingly ignorant to the incomprehensible grief and suffering millions of people in India are currently going through right now amid a global, deadly pandemic.
Language is power. It is powerful because it creates the reality it describes.
What happens, then, when language is used to dehumanize and divide?
Such racist sentiments have already been expressed against our Myanmar and Cambodian neighbours in order to blame them for the pandemic in Thailand; these racist narratives now used to describe the virus will only pose a threat to the Indian community in Thailand.
There is a dire need for us, as a society, to educate ourselves and become aware of our own prejudice and internalized racism, before we start pointing any fingers. The media should be at the forefront of this understanding instead of being the culprit behind our divisions.