A worrying rise in Islamophobia ever since a number of Muslim men were diagnosed with Covid-19Speculation that Muslims are knowingly spreading Covid-19 has begun to spread, aided and abetted by social media and some online news portals.
On Saturday, a few 10 rupee notes dropped from the pockets of two Muslim women walking in Janakpur, an incident that was caught on CCTV camera. But it took no time at all for this innocent accident to be turned into something much more insidious. In a few hours, a video was doing the rounds on social media, accusing the women of being deliberately attempting to spread Covid-19 by spitting on the notes and throwing them in public.
As the video began to spread, the two women were taken into custody and a rapid diagnostic test performed on them. One came back positive, but the next day, polymerase chain reaction tests for both were negative, meaning they did not carry the coronavirus.
An investigative report by Kantipur, the Post’s sister paper, later revealed all of the allegations were false. They had not spat on anything; they had not knowingly dropped the currency bills; and they did not have Covid-19. They had just returned from withdrawing money from the bank and had inadvertently dropped some change.
But because the women were Muslim, a fictive story, driven largely by Islamophobia, spread quickly through social media, driven largely by a number of online news portals.
“Some online portals have no accountability and the perspectives that they build are doubtful,” said Mohna Ansari, a member of the National Human Rights Commission. “Due process must be followed and individuals responsible for spreading hate must be brought to justice. The Press Council should take strong actions against journalists and such media outlets.”
Suspicion and paranoia regarding Muslims has spiked recently, ever since the identification of Covid-19 in 13 men who were living in a mosque in Udayapur. A majority of those men were Indian Muslims, who had come to Nepal for a Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Saptari in February. After their diagnosis, a number of media, both online and traditional, perpetrated the narrative that the men had been “hiding” in mosques.
According to Mohd Ayub, a researcher, these allegations have no basis in fact.
“The members of the [Tablighi] Jamaat are always on the move. You can find them in any city in the world, and they always stay in mosques,” said Ayub. “Due to the lockdown, their movements were restricted. Them ‘hiding’ in mosques across the country is a narrative built on factual inaccuracy.”
Like with everything else, Islamophobia in Nepal is largely influenced by what is happening across the border in India.
The past year has seen the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi take increasingly bold measures to disenfranchise India’s Muslim population. But ever since the identification of a large number of Covid-19 cases linked to the Tablighi Jamaat, incidents of hate speech and communal violence against Muslims have risen.
According to Izhar Mikrani, president of the Intellectual Muslim Association of Nepal, a rights-based organisation that advocates secularism, Muslims have long faced discrimination in the Madhes, which is where a majority of them reside, but such prejudices are now spreading to other parts of the country via social media.
“This is a spillover effect from how the Hindu right in India has been furthering its agenda and using the media as a powerful tool,” said Mikrani. “To fulfill their long-standing ambitions, they do not even shy away from exploiting a global pandemic. Nepal has always been peaceful and accepting of Muslims but the islamophobia in India seems to be getting here, too.”
In Nepal, even influential people, including journalists, have been sharing openly speculating about the role of Muslims in spreading Covid-19, sometimes even going so far as to speculate if the coronavirus was being employed as a “suicide bomb.”
But people like Abhimanu Patel, a journalist based in Rautahat, see a widespread conspiracy to protect the actions of Muslims.
“I have not reported on these stories directly, but I know that Muslims from India and other countries are hiding in Nepali mosques,” said Patel, who’s shared a number of unverified reports about Muslims on his social media profile. “This is permitted because the chief minister of Province 2 is Muslim.”
But for Muslims around the world, including in Nepal, there are other, more immediate concerns. The holy month of Ramadan is set to begin at the end of this week and due to the lockdown, communities have not been able to prepare.
“We have not been able to purchase dates, fruits, and vermicelli to consume and distribute during Ramadan,” said Shamsad Ali, a youth activist based in Kapilvastu. “Even that aside, our community was among the first to provide relief packages for the most affected families in our area. These acts were ignored by the media but even some of my friends, who have been influenced by fake news on social media, have begun to slander my community.”
According to Ansari, the human rights commissioner, hate speech is a punishable offence and those who knowingly perpetuate hatred against certain communities can be punished according to the law.
“While it is true that minorities are always subdued, our constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to practise their religion freely,” she said. “There is no space for hatred towards any religious communities.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of May 26, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 had spread to 210 countries and infected more than 5,589,712 people with 347,903 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 144,950 with 4,172 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 57,705 confirmed cases with 1,197 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 772 cases with four deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.