As world struggles to stop deaths, far right celebrates COVID-19

Some hardliners want to use the virus as a weapon to kill minorities, as others spread further hate and conspiracy.

Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally on April 21, 2018 in Draketown, Georgia. Community members had opposed t
Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally in 2018 in Georgia [File: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP]

The new coronavirus has already infected hundreds of thousands of people, taken more than 20,000 lives and caused a level of economic, social and political disruption not seen in decades.

But for many far-right hardliners, it’s a crisis to be welcomed.

The hardest-core “accelerationists” – violent neo-Nazis who want civilisation to crumble, hope that COVID-19 will turn out to be their secret weapon.

“The situation is ripe for exploitation by the far right,” Cynthia Miller-Idriss, American University sociologist and expert on the far-right, told Al Jazeera. 

Aside from feeding into “accelerationist and apocalytic ideas”, Miller-Idriss said “the uncertainty the pandemic creates creates fertile ground for claims about the need for change or the solutions the far right purports to offer.”

A leader of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), a neo-Nazi movement based in northern Europe, said that he welcomed the pandemic as a necessary step to help create the world that his group wants to see.

“[COVID-19] might be precisely what we need in order to bring about a real national uprising and a strengthening of revolutionary political forces,” Simon Lindberg, the leader of NRM’s Swedish branch, wrote on the movement’s website.

“We cannot build a society lasting thousands of years into the future on the rotten foundations of today,” Lindberg added, “[but] instead we must build it upon the ruins of their creation.”

NRM, described as a neo-Nazi “cult” by one former member, has temporarily been banned by Finnish courts pending a final ruling on the movement’s legality.

According to Norwegian police, the 22-year-old perpetrator of an August 2019 attack on a mosque had been in contact with NRM.

Other far-right groups see the pandemic as an opportunity to further push xenophobic, racist messages.

In Germany, members of the neo-Nazi group Die Rechte (The Right) claimed that German borders should have been sealed off weeks ago to all “non-Europeans”.

Another German neo-Nazi group, Der Dritte Weg (The Third Way), said that the virus was being exploited by German leaders as a “diversionary tactic” to distract from an apparent oncoming “flood” of refugees and migrants from the Middle East.

In Ukraine, a figure in the country’s far-right Azov movement took to messaging app Telegram to claim that the spread of COVID-19 “generally isn’t the fault of white people” and stated that ethnic minorities in Italy should alone be blamed for the spread of the virus there – where now more than 8,000 have died.

And it was on Telegram, the online messaging application that has been the target of much criticism for allowing openly violent content on its platform, where the most ardent far-right fans of COVID-19 can be found.

“Neo-Nazi accelerationist Telegram channels have increased their calls for destabilisation and violence related to COVID-19,” Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher from the United States-based Counter Extremism Project, which monitors international “extremist” movements, told Al Jazeera.

“These channels are treating the current situation … as an opportunity to try to increase tension and advocate for violence.”

Much of this content is available to anyone online, even those without a Telegram user account.

One popular neo-Nazi channel urged its members to cough on doorknobs at synagogues. Another urged followers infected with COVID-19 to spray their saliva on police officers.

And a further channel praised a man arrested in New Jersey in the US for coughing on a grocery store employee and claiming he had COVID-19.

“Exalted to sainthood,” the channel wrote in a now-deleted comment on a news story about the incident. 

The term saint or sainthood is common praise for perpetrators of violence on neo-Nazi Telegram channels. 

A great deal of this content is shared as an attempt at humour or trolling, but it's possible that a member of the target audience will decide to take action and commit an act of violence.

by Joshua Fisher-Birch, researcher from the US-based Counter Extremism Project

But the calls for spreading COVID-19 go beyond Telegram.

In recently leaked chat logs on Discord, an online chat application, members of Feuerkrieg Division discussed deliberately infecting Jews and others if one of the members caught the virus.

Feuerkrieg Division is a small neo-Nazi group with a presence in the US and Europe whose members have planned to carry out attacks. Several members of the group, including teenagers, have already been arrested in recent months for their activities. 

Law enforcement has taken notice of what the far right has to say about COVID-19. 

In a memo this week to US law enforcement agencies, US Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen wrote that anyone in the US who intentionally spreads COVID-19 could be charged under anti-terrorism legislation, given that the virus “appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent'”.

Rosen reportedly would not say whether such actions had yet to take place or whether his warning was merely a precaution.

Far-right fantasies

Some far-right fantasies about COVID-19 have already spilled over into the real world.

Well-known far-right figure Timothy Wilson, 36, died on Tuesday after a shootout with FBI agents in Missouri in the US. Wilson had been planning to attack a hospital caring for patients suffering from COVID-19.

According to reports, Wilson was an administrator of a neo-Nazi Telegram channel known for encouraging violence.

Wilson promoted attacks and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 outbreak on the channel, claiming that the pandemic was an “excuse to destroy our people”. 

Fisher-Birch from the Counter Extremism Project warns that although it is difficult to gauge the level of danger from the far-right’s rhetoric, it still needs to be taken seriously. 

“A great deal of this content is shared as an attempt at humour or trolling,” Fisher-Birch told Al Jazeera, “but it’s possible that a member of the target audience will decide to take action and commit an act of violence.”

Source: Al Jazeera