Racism and the COVID-19 Crisis: Experiences and Responses

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA's Director, Michael O'Flaherty, delivered a keynote speech during a webinar on 7 May 2020 hosted by the European Parliament's Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup and B’nai B’rith International. The webinar focused on racism and the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli also delivered a keynote speech during the seminar.

Thank you very much indeed for the invitation. Let me express my appreciation to B’nai B’rith and to ARDI for taking the initiative to organise this meeting.

I have to begin, I am afraid, by agreeing with everybody who has already spoken: today we are not speaking of racism and discrimination as a risk in the time of COVID, but as a serious and growing reality.

Here at the Fundamental Rights Agency we know that from our work across the 27 Member States; we have research teams in every Member State and we are chronicling day by day, month by month, the human and fundamental rights implications of COVID and the public health and other responses. We publish our evidence in bulletins that we issue every month: the first one last month, the next one later in May.

But what are we seeing? We are observing particular minority groups experiencing particularly worrying challenges. Roma have been mentioned already but they must be mentioned again: Roma in many places in Europe are being blamed for the virus. They are subject to draconian lockdown when the virus is detected in their communities, lockdowns which would be frankly unacceptable in the general population. We have far too many reports of discriminatory profiling of Roma in the context of policing the lockdowns.

And when one explores the issue of intersectionality, we see some very serious problems with Roma, for example the intersectionality of poverty and being a member of the Roma community. We already heard from MEP Franz about the issue of hygiene and washing hands and lack of running water in so many places, but there is also the issue of children away from school, relying on distance learning when they do not have access to WiFi or computers.

Turning to another group that is particularly hard hit, migrants, especially those who have arrived recently, many of the issues I have just described are no less relevant, but I would add, as particularly worrying situations: the closed borders, the inability to apply for asylum in too many locations, and the reports of pushbacks in some places. We also have the well-reported risks in closed reception facilities; and it is not just the risk of contracting the virus, it is also the risks that are faced by certain migrants within these communities. For example, migrants who are obliged to live in a hostile environment, such as those who self-identify as LGBTI and are forced to live with people who find their lifestyle – or their reality – unacceptable.

The situation of the Jewish community has already been mentioned and it needs to be flagged again. Here at the Fundamental Rights Agency, frankly we were shocked when we read the recent report of the World Jewish Congress regarding what they are detecting as patterns globally.

Commissioner Dalli has made reference just now to those perceived to be of Asian origin, and I would particularly point to those who are perceived to be of Chinese origin. I think the situation, while unacceptable, is relatively well known.

There are two other groups that face discrimination who I would mention, even if it is not primarily a racial or an ethnic discrimination, but nevertheless important to mention, including through intersectionality. The first of these two is people with disabilities: again, here we have the problem of people facing infection in institutions but also, in recent weeks, we are getting reports of people with disabilities having great difficulties gaining access to goods, such as, for example, gaining access to shops where everybody is required to push a trolley.

The last group I would mention is women: we must adopt a gendered approach to all analysis of racism and discrimination in the context of COVID. The very disturbing incidents of violence against women has received some attention, but there are many dimensions where women face worse experiences than men. Such as, for example, in the supports given to essential staff in some places, which focus on essential staff who have somebody else at home to care for the children. What does that say to the single parent, such as the single mother?

Now before moving on, I would observe that we have to keep in mind that, in reporting what is going on in the context of COVID as in any other context, we know as a fact, across all groups, that there is massive underreporting of incidents of discrimination and violence including on the basis of actual or perceived ethnicity. So we have to assume that we only have the tip of the iceberg in terms of the actual reality.

And finally in terms of the situation as we see it, I would echo what Commissioner Dalli said and I would recall the importance to look to the future and to the new challenges that are emerging very quickly over the horizon. I am thinking in particular today, of the inevitable economic recession and the related inequalities and discriminations for which we must already be preparing.

Now what do we need to do? Let me wrap up with some specific action points; there will be seven of them, but I promise they’ll be extremely brief. The first action point has to be never forget and remind everybody that we are not talking here about good behaviour, decent behaviour, nice behaviour. We’re talking about law. Non-discrimination and equality are legal entitlements and legal duties, and we must insist on them in that frame.

Second, we need to do a better job of auditing public health measures, in order to assess their impact on minorities. These measures need to be audited in their design and in their roll-out. That brings me to the third of my seven points, and that is: in order to audit them in their roll-out, in their implementation, we must collect disaggregated data. We must know the impact of public health and related measures, taking account of their distinct impact according to categories of ethnicity, nationality, disability, gender and age..

Fourth, we have to continue to invest in encouraging impacted people and communities to be willing to report their experience. Again, it is vitally important that we improve self-reporting to get a sense of the scale of the problems we’re facing. I could make this point in any setting, but I have to reiterate it in this particular context.

Fifth, and I think the point has already been made, we need our leaders, our political leaders to make strong, public statements that reject myths and call for solidarity across all of the component parts of our societies.

Sixth, where law is violated, such violations must be investigated and prosecuted. Those who break criminal laws in the context of hate and hate related crimes must be held accountable, and as Commissioner Dalli said, it is so important that the relevant EU law be transposed and be implemented.

Seventh, and indeed finally, I would like to make a systemic point which ranges right across all issues of the response to COVID-19, be it in the context of racism, discrimination, or otherwise, and that is that we need to see far more human and fundamental rights expertise at the heart of decision-making above all else at the national levels. We see many high-level councils, government bodies, committees established that comprise political leaders, epidemiologists, medical leaders, security representatives, economists… I do not see enough human rights experts in there. This mix of expertise must include the expertise on human rights so that human rights can be respected, that, when they are restricted, it can be done in compliance with the rules and with the prohibition – the absolute prohibition - on discrimination.

Thank you.