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States should take action against COVID-19-related expressions of xenophobia, says UN expert

23 March 2020

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination 21 March 2020

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GENEVA (23 March 2020) – Governments must ensure that their response to the COVID-19 pandemic does not contribute to xenophobia and racial discrimination, and must eradicate xenophobia  throughout all State policy and messaging, said E. Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on racism, on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

“Crises like the coronavirus pandemic remind us that we are all connected and that our well-being is interdependent.

“It’s dismaying to witness State officials—including the President of the United States—adopting alternative names for the COVID-19 coronavirus. Instead of using the internationally recognized name of the virus, these officials have adopted names with geographic references, typically referring to its emergence in China.

“This sort of calculated use of a geographic-based name for this virus is rooted in and fosters racism and xenophobia. In this case, it serves to isolate and stigmatize individuals who are or are perceived to be of Chinese or other East Asian descent.

“Such irresponsible, discriminatory State rhetoric is no minor issue. As noted by the World Health Organization in 2015: ‘disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected ... certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities ... This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods’.

“These consequences have already become a reality. Over the past two months, people who are perceived or known to be of Chinese or other East Asian descent have been subject to racist and xenophobic attacks related to the virus. These attacks have ranged from hateful slurs to denial of services to brutal acts of violence.

“COVID-19-related expressions of racism and xenophobia online have included harassment, hate speech, proliferation of discriminatory stereotypes, and conspiracy theories. Not surprisingly, leaders who are attempting to attribute COVID-19 to certain national or ethnic groups are the very same nationalist populist leaders who have made racist and xenophobic rhetoric central to their political platforms.

“Political responses to the COVID-19 outbreak that stigmatize, exclude, and make certain populations more vulnerable to violence are inexcusable, unconscionable, and inconsistent with States’ international human rights law obligations.

“Furthermore, political rhetoric and policy that stokes fear and diminish the equality of all people is counterproductive. To treat and combat the spread of COVID-19 effectively, individuals must have access to accurate health advice and sufficient healthcare without fear of discrimination.

“In commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, States should reaffirm our joint obligations to achieve equality for all and to acknowledge that our work remains unfinished. As States across the world engage in their coordinated efforts to end this pandemic, I call on all actors to ensure that their work contributes to a holistic concept of health and well-being, including freedom from racism and xenophobia.”


Ms E. Tendayi Achiume (Zambia) was appointed by the Human Rights Council as Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in September 2017. Ms. Achiume is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. She is also a research associate of the African Center for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Proceduresof the Human Rights Council. Comprising the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, Special Procedures is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and press inquiries, please contact Kellie Ognimba ([email protected] / +41 79 290 9816), Minkyong Kim ([email protected] / +41 76 327 6350), Netsanet Tesfay ([email protected]) or [email protected].

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter: @UN_SPExperts.

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