The panic and fear created by COVID-19 have stigmatised certain groups, reinforced negative stereotypes and fuelled hate. The pandemic is also a boon to the extreme right-wing ideology that has become the fastest growing driver of extremist violence in the West. With travel restrictions in force and flight numbers down, the aviation sector is unlikely to bear the brunt of this problem at the height of the pandemic, but neither will it be immune to it as people take to the skies again. Joseph Smith discusses how attitudes and ideologies might impact on the industry in the COVID-19 era.
Since the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spread from China, there have been frequent reports of Chinese nationals falling victim to xenophobia and racism. Media and political figures have also sought to blame or stigmatise China by referring to the disease variously as the ‘Chinese virus’, ‘Wuhan virus’ and ‘Kung flu’. French regional newspaper Le Courrier picard sparked a backlash in January when it published an edition with the headlines ‘Alerte Jaune’ (‘Yellow Alert’) and ‘Le péril jaune?’ (‘yellow peril’) – a reference to nineteenth-century, anti-Asian xenophobia in Europe and North America. Outside East Asia, individuals of perceived Asian descent more broadly have also been targeted, based on the suspicion that they may be carriers of the virus.
Discrimination has taken many forms. So-called acts of ‘microaggression’ are usually passive, with perpetrators keeping an exaggerated distance from individuals of perceived Asian ethnicity or avoiding locations where ethnic Asians congregate. Other forms of discrimination are more direct and in some countries have included bans or ad hoc denials of service for perceived ethnic Asians at shops, restaurants and bars.
On a 10 February flight from The Netherlands to South Korea, a crewmember put a note in Korean on a toilet door indicating that it was for the use of cabin crew only. The note led to outcry in South Korea with many noting the lack of a note in English and accusing the airline of discriminating against Koreans over fears they may be carrying COVID-19. The airline insisted the use of only Korean was an “oversight”.
“…individuals of Haitian descent were commonly blamed for the spread of HIV in the 1980s, and the 2014 Ebola crisis led to a spike in xenophobia towards the African diaspora…”
Anecdotal reports of violence against people of perceived Asian ethnicity have also ballooned in 2020 in this context. In the UK, a student from Singapore in January posted photos on social media after he was attacked by assailants, one of whom reportedly said, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country”. In February, two assailants in Berlin assaulted a Chinese woman, leading to her hospitalisation. In the US, assailants in late March attacked a woman on a bus in the worst affected state of New York, told her that she was responsible for the coronavirus and made “anti-Asian statements”. Although there are few reports of such incidents affecting aviation specifically, that more likely reflects the sharp fall in passenger numbers rather than the sector’s immunity to such attacks.
Hate crimes and race-based violence are not new and are not solely perpetrated against ethnic Asians. Scapegoating a region, nation or race for a disease has happened many times before. In the US, individuals of Haitian descent were commonly blamed for the spread of HIV in the 1980s, and the 2014 Ebola crisis led to a spike in xenophobia towards the African diaspora.
In recent years, a rise in primarily racially motivated hate crimes has been reported in North America and in parts of Europe. In England and Wales, the number of hate crimes recorded by the police more than doubled between 2012-13 and 2018-19. Recent data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) suggests that hate crimes in the US were at their highest level in over a decade in 2018. Across the West, political polarisation before the emergence of COVID-19 has doubtless contributed, as has anti-immigration rhetoric used by populists and amplified by right-wing media outlets.
Incidents of abuse can occur in any social setting – including aircraft. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), 66,000 unruly passenger incidents were reported between 2007 and 2017 (although IATA acknowledges that the actual number of incidents is likely to be significantly higher), some of which included abusive or discriminatory behaviour. In October 2018, a man racially abused a woman on a plane during boarding at Barcelona airport, after which a video of the incident went viral. In May 2019, a group of passengers on a flight from Berlin to Palma (Mallorca) were filmed chanting a racist slur. According to passengers on board, some of the group were wearing clothes emblazoned with far-right and Nazi slogans. In a high-profile incident from November 2019, a man allegedly refused to sit next to a woman on a domestic US flight because she was black.
“…in May 2019, a group of passengers on a flight from Berlin to Palma were filmed chanting a racist slur… some of the group were wearing clothes emblazoned with far-right and Nazi slogans…”
Even if the perpetrators of such incidents are not violent themselves, provocative behaviour can elicit a response from other well-meaning passengers. The reputational stakes are high for airlines that do not effectively manage the situation, especially in an era when videos quickly circulate online.
The Rise of the Far Right
While abuse and harassment present challenges for the aviation sector, xenophobia has also fuelled the rise in right-wing extremist violence during the 2010s. Islamist extremism is likely to remain the primary driver of extremist violence globally for some time to come and the most significant terrorism threat to the aviation sector. However, the number of individual attacks attributed to right-wing extremists has grown more quickly in many Western countries than those attributed to other ideologies in recent years. According to US-based antisemitism watchdog, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), right-wing extremists were responsible for more than 76% of all extremist-related murders in the country during the last decade.
Although most such extremists are locally organised, they are rarely true ‘lone wolves’. Most are radicalised online, with forums becoming popular locations for inciting violence across borders. As right-wing violence has grown, mainstream social media networks and websites have become increasingly hostile to right-wing activists by deactivating accounts or taking down offensive content. This alone will not eliminate the problem, with so-called ‘no-platforming’ simply leading to an exodus of users to alternative niche networks.
Many of these networks take a more laissez-faire approach to content moderation and fringe, controversial or openly racist material can circulate relatively freely. They have become key means for conversion to or indoctrination in extreme right and racist ideology. Many of those who carry out attacks not only absorb content online, but also produce it and act as sources of radicalisation for others. Before carrying out his attack on two mosques in Christchurch (New Zealand) in March 2019, Brenton Tarrant posted a 74-page manifesto online, providing inspiration for others. The perpetrators of subsequent high-profile attacks in Europe and North America have followed a similar playbook, often referencing Tarrant or each other in their diatribes.
Unlike the adherents of other extremist ideologies, the far right has not shown much intent to target the aviation sector directly and primarily poses an incidental threat to it. With many theories and ideologies espoused by the far right centring on hate for religious, racial or ethnic minorities, attacks often target their places of worship or other locations where they are known to congregate. Airline personnel or aviation staff are more likely to be targeted while going about their daily lives than while carrying out their duties.
“…bogus theories assert that Jewish people created the virus to profit from a vaccine, while others suggest that the community is using the pandemic to expand its global influence…”
In regions and countries where right-wing extremism has grown in recent years, COVID-19 has contributed to the stigmatisation of traditional targets of violence, including Jewish, Muslim and immigrant communities. In North America and Europe, right-wing groups and activists are leveraging the crisis to propagate and expand upon well-rehearsed conspiracy theories and racist stereotypes.
According to the ADL, right-wing groups are using fringe online platforms to push conspiracy theories linking COVID-19 to the Jewish community. Some bogus theories assert that Jewish people created the virus to profit from a vaccine, while others suggest that the community is using the pandemic to expand its global influence (Jewish influence on the world stage has long been a common feature of online right-wing conspiratorial rhetoric). Meanwhile, in the UK, anti-extremism monitoring group, Tell MAMA, in March recorded numerous incidents of right-wing groups blaming the Muslim community for the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
The pandemic and associated misinformation will further fuel right-wing extremist attacks and hate crimes against minority groups. White supremacists in the US have even discussed deliberately spreading COVID-19 to Jewish, African-American and other minority communities, with some seeing it as triggering an anticipated revolutionary race war. In one incident in the UK, a man coughed in the face of a Muslim woman and claimed he had COVID-19, before swearing at her and using a racial slur. Separately, some right-wing extremist channels on social media have called for violent attacks against law enforcement following the 25 May death of George Floyd in the US. They may seek to leverage the ensuing wave of protests to incite further violence against minority groups.
COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders and restrictions on assembly are limiting footfall at some of the traditional targets of right-wing attacks, such as mosques or synagogues. Although the primary threat to the aviation sector is incidental, this could lead to extremists selecting a wider range of targets where people are known to congregate. In the US state of Missouri, on 24 March, FBI officers killed an individual suspected of plotting an attack against a hospital. He is suspected of changing his earlier plan to target racial or religious minorities after the COVID-19 stay-home order was issued in the state.
In the current context, it is unlikely that race-based abuse and violence will subside significantly, as recent tensions seen across the US have shown. The threat, however, will continue to evolve. In the short term, it will likely be fuelled by misinformation and disinformation around COVID-19, as well as the spread of the virus in new areas.
“…right-wing extremists were responsible for more than 76% of all extremist-related murders in the country during the last decade…”
Although China is no longer the epicentre of the pandemic, this does not mean that people of perceived Asian ethnicity will stop being the targets of discrimination. Even if they are less likely to be suspected sources of COVID-19, they may continue to be stigmatised as the perceived cause of the problem.
While restrictions remain in place, cabin crew and airport staff may be the targets of xenophobic abuse and violence outside of the workplace based on the colour of their skin or the god they worship. As border closures are lifted and inter-state travel picks up again, the sector may be more directly exposed to racially motivated abuse. As community transmission is brought under control within individual countries, transport hubs could attract more scrutiny from threat actors if they see them as potential sources of contagion.
Employees may not be targets, but may instead find themselves responding to incidents between passengers. In fact, there will be even greater scrutiny of airlines – and particularly those that receive significant government support during the crisis. Those that respond badly, fail to defuse abusive situations or even inflame them further may find themselves on trial in the court of public opinion.
Joseph Smith is a senior analyst at specialist risk consultancy, Control Risks. He is responsible for providing analysis on international issues and their impact on business, including geopolitics, transnational terrorism, direct action, sanctions and risks relating to climate change. He regularly contributes to bespoke assessments on threats to the aviation sector.