Nepalis in England on the receiving end of xenophobia amidst Covid-19 fearsLast week, two cars belonging to former British Gurkhas were set on fire in what is believed to be racially motivated attacks.
On Wednesday, April 15, Milan Limbu was playing video games in his room when he heard a loud explosion. At first, he thought it was the sound of fireworks. But it was 11 pm in the otherwise quiet neighbourhood of Maidstone, an English town south-east of London. Limbu looked out the window to find his parents’ car on fire.
The police and fire department were called, and the conclusion was arson—the car had deliberately been set on fire. For Limbu, the son of Ram Kumar Limbu, a former British Gurkha, it was an attack that he’d never experienced before in Maidstone, a small town that is known as a Gurkha enclave in England.
“It was an attack on my family, on our house,” said Limbu.
But that wasn’t to be the only attack on the Gurkha community that night. Barely an hour after Limbu’s parents’ car was set afire, another car belonging to Basanta Maden, also a former British Gurkha and Limbu’s neighbour, was burned.
Ratna Limbu, Milan’s uncle, believes that the arson attacks were racially motivated.
“We have been deeply saddened and, at the same time, badly shaken up by these incidents,” he said. “I am afraid that my family might also be the target of a hate crime.”
The arson attacks on Limbu and Maden are by no means isolated incidents. In recent days, physical and verbal attacks against the Nepali community in England are becoming much more common. Many believe that this has to do with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has sparked racism and anti-Asian xenophobia across the world.
Last month, when Roshan Gurung was walking on the street of Bristol, a man directed an angry rant at him from his car.
“It was the first time that I faced racism. I get chills even remembering the incident. The man yelled at me, saying at what price I was selling bats and then he sarcastically congratulated me for spreading Covid-19,” said Gurung.
On March 18, Haushala Thapa Zimba reported being the target of a comment by a passerby who accused her of having brought the “virus” to England.
“Until then, I had never been harassed for my race. So, when racist slurs were used against me, I felt shocked, angry and unsafe at the same time. I felt like people were judging me based on my appearance,” said Zimba.
As the number of Covid-19 cases rises, fear and anxiety over the potentially deadly disease have led individuals and groups to scapegoat Chinese people and those of Asian descent. Throughout history, whenever there is a major incident with global or regional implications, people have sought to allocate blame to certain vulnerable populations in order to calm their own fears.
There is evidence that wherever outbreaks take place, people scapegoat groups that are already marginalised and treated as “the other.”
Narayani Devkota, a lecturer at Tribhuvan University’s Sociology Department, said that the Nepali community in the UK has become a target of racist crimes amidst the outbreak of Covid-19 because they have long been regarded as “the other” in the predominantly white society.
“Nepalis in the UK are racially distinct immigrants who are in the minority. They are also regarded as comparatively poor in socio-economic status. These reasons may have further triggered the racially motivated act against them during the outbreak,” said Devkota.
According to Neelima Limbu, a resident of Dover, harassment against the Nepali community existed even before the outbreak of Covid-19.
“I work in a supermarket and I have faced comments such as ‘go back to your country’ several times, even before the corona outbreak,” said Limbu. “Most of the time, these attackers are a small disruptive group of individuals, such as uneducated people and kids.”
Neelima, however, said misinformation regarding Covid-19 and its association with a certain ethnicity has only contributed to the hostility towards Nepalis.
“Since the media has been Covid-19 with pictures of Asian people, many have started scapegoating Nepalis on the basis of their appearance, as there are many Nepalis who resemble East Asians,” he said.
The repeated use of photos of Asians alongside news about Covid-19 could contribute to the xenophobia Asians already face, according to Kainaz Amaria, the American news outlet Vox’s visuals editor.
“News outlets must ask themselves—Are the photographs further stigmatizing a particular community or perpetuating stereotypes?” said Amaria.
As for the arson attacks, Dinesh Khadka, a Maidstone borough councillor, said that the police are investigating the cases and five people have been taken into custody on suspicion of involvement. Khadka, however, doesn’t believe that the arson attacks were racially motivated.
“I have spent around 19 years in this locality, and I have never come across a racially motivated crime against the Nepali community,” he said. “There are around a thousand Nepalis living in Maidstone and people love and respect British Gorkhas. We should see this as an arson attack that happened to be on Nepalis, rather than as a racially motivated crime against Nepalis.”
Khadka reported that the Maidstone community has successfully raised the total of 1,000 pounds for victims of the arson attacks as a gesture of solidarity.
But not everyone shares Khadka’s optimism.
Alan Mercel-Sanca, chief executive officer of the UK-Nepal Friendship Society, said that the arson attacks were “symptomatic of a much broader engrained problem of anti-Asian racism”.
In an email that was sent to community leaders and council members, Mercel-Sanca urged the authorities to monitor and act to prevent racially motivated crimes against British Gorkhas.
Even officials at the Nepali Embassy in London believe that the attacks were a result of racial stereotyping.
“We believe that the Maidstone incidents were racially motivated,” said Sarad Raj Aran, deputy chief of mission at the Nepali embassy. “We are concerned that if such crimes keep happening, racist acts against Nepalis may continue, even after the pandemic is over.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 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 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 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.