COVID-19 Op-ed

Problematizing the ‘R’ in Virus: ‘Racism’ in the time of Covid-19

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Suthida ChangUniversity of
Nottingham Ningbo(MA International Relations and
International Business)

As Thailand moves into preparations for Phase 6 of reopening
under the ‘New Normal’ (The Thaiger 2020), major cities like Bangkok, Phuket
and Chiangmai are restarting their economic engines with events to bring the
tourism industry back online . One jump-start event is the Bangkok Midnight
Marathon (BMM) scheduled for 13th December 2020. In its third year, the BMM
committee has introduced protection measures to keep runners safe from the
virus. This includes temperature checks, social distancing and making
mask-wearing compulsory — nothing over – demanding given the city’s growing
acceptance for anti-COVID measures. The problem lies with the BMM’s online
registration form.Registration for the marathon, launched on 8 August, apparently
allowed only Thai citizens to participate (Bangkok Post 2020). Following an
unknown staff’s reply to an expat’s query on foreigners’ eligibility to
participate in the race, it was confirmed that foreigners were barred from
BMM 2020 to prevent possible viral transmissions. This led to an uproar by
Netizens who bombarded BMM’s Facebook post, targeting the organizer’s racist
policy. Fortunately, BMM later announced that registration for foreigners
would begin on 13th August, and explained that the organizers never intended
to offend anyone, especially expat racers who are a valued part of the
running community in Thailand.Netizens have accepted BMM’s apology but this
incident points to a large and deeper-embedded crisis in Thai society. Racism
— not just an unfortunate case of the under-informed mass but a
sociopolitical failure that is publicly-endorsed by some of the nation’s
political profiles. This rise of anti-Westerner sentiments has been building
momentum since the start of the year, but came after a smaller surge of
anti-Chinese-ness in the tourism sector when the virus first emerged. In
March, Thai Health Minister Anutin proclaimed his unwelcome to Western
tourists who refused to wear masks in Bangkok, claiming that “They need to be
kicked out of Thailand!” (Asia Times, 2020). Shortly after, temples in
Bangkok closed their doors to non-Thai worshippers and a national bus service
required proof of Thai identification to board the bus (Atthakor,
2020).Linking the incident to recent events — an Egyptian soldier’s tour of
Rayong during his flight layover from China to Egypt resulted in more than
5000 people in the city being tested for COVID-19; in Bangkok, 364 people at
a condominium were tested after a diplomat’s daughter was diagnosed with the
virus (Judd 2020) — do these justify this ‘farang-fear’ and en masse
segregation of foreigners from Thai society? If these foreigners have recent
travel history — perhaps yes — but most expats have been in the country since
the beginning of 2020. They were definitely in Thailand when the country
enacted travel restrictions that are currently still in place. Moreover, the
recent increase in the number of COVID-19 patients were from repatriated Thai
citizens from abroad, not foreigners. Without doubt, these non-foreigner
policies failed to take into account the real situation of expats in
Thailand, but worked wonderfully to fuel mass xenophobia.72 years after the
creation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), we are still dealing
with racism in our own backyards. When can institutions, government, private
sectors and civil society recognize and uphold Article 2 of the UDHR (UN
General Assembly, 1948) whereby “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and
freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such
as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national
or social origin, property, birth or other status…?” As the Thai government
place its hopes on tourism to revive the national economy, and therefore
attributing value to Western and East Asian tourists, the country needs to
sort out its misinformation crisis. This includes communicating with locals
to assess the fears of reopening Thailand’s borders, particularly in rolling
out measures that address the concerns of a potential imported second wave of
the pandemic.However, this does not warrant a blanket policy that excludes
all foreigners in the country from participating in local events, especially
with such explicit ignorance. Thailand as a developing middle-income country
cannot afford to close in on itself in this era of hyper-connectedness, nor
can the nation backtrack on its ethics education. The COVID-19 heath crisis
has evolved into a humanitarian crisis where misinformed persons use the
pandemic to justify racial discrimination. This ‘New Normal’ that Thailand is
gearing towards must work to eradicate racism — a sentiment that should have
never been normalized.References:Atthakor,
P 2020, ‘Thais-only’ policy is racism, pure and simple’, Bangkok
Post Opinion,
13 June.  Available from:
.Bangkok Midnight Marathon 2020, Apology to Expat Runners,
Facebook post, 7 August. Available from:
.Bangkok Post 2020, ‘Marathon organisers relent, will allow expats’,
Bangkok Post News, 8 August. Available from:
.Ehrlich, RS 2020, ‘Thailand blames its Covid-19 crisis on Caucasians’,
Asia Times, 20 March. Available from:
.Hutton, M 2020, ‘Thai health minister blames ‘dirty’ Western tourists for
country’s coronavirus cases’, South China Morning Post,
25 March. Available from:
.Judd, A 2020, ‘Bangkok Midnight Marathon offers apology for banning
foreigners from event but sparks heavy discussion on social media’,
The Pattaya News, 8 August. Available from:
.The Thaiger 2020, ‘Phase 6 to be announced this week, will allow more groups
to come to Thailand’, The Thaiger, 20 July. Available
.UN General Assembly 1948, Universal declaration of human rights.
 Available from:

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