Anger as right-wing UK voices suggest Ramadan virus spread

Scapegoating narratives may pose additional dangers to public health, warn experts.

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    Mosques in the UK have been closed for weeks, and many of the front-line NHS staff fighting the pandemic are Muslims. Some mosques, such as the Central Jamia Mosque Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham, have even built temporary morgues on their premises [Carl Recine/Reuters]
    Mosques in the UK have been closed for weeks, and many of the front-line NHS staff fighting the pandemic are Muslims. Some mosques, such as the Central Jamia Mosque Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham, have even built temporary morgues on their premises [Carl Recine/Reuters]
    14/04/2020: Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Andrew Pierce's tweet to say 'there will be a huge spike in Covid cases. Doctors are very worried'. This was incorrect and has now been amended. The title has also been changed from Anger as right-wing UK voices 'predict' Ramadan virus spread to Anger as right-wing UK voices suggest Ramadan virus spread.

    London, United Kingdom - Concerns have been raised that right-wing voices in the United Kingdom could fuel Islamophobia, after a commentator suggested a "spike" in coronavirus cases during Ramadan.

    Andrew Pierce, a journalist for the Daily Mail tabloid, tweeted on Sunday: "If families gather for holy month of Ramadan will there be a huge spike in Covid cases. Doctors are very worried."

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    His tweet was met with anger by academics, journalists and activists alike who accused him of raising unsubstantiated claims.

    An article published by The Times on the same day evoked similar sentiments, after it, too, suggested an increase in coronavirus cases due to a predicted increase in gatherings during Ramadan - despite social distancing regulations - leading with the headline, "Experts fear a spike in UK coronavirus cases during Ramadan".

    Among those critical of this rhetoric was Miqdaad Versi, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain. Speaking to Al Jazeera English, he said it was of paramount importance "to guard against far-right rhetoric" which scapegoated Muslims as a "threat to the rest of society".

    "We've witnessed these through a number of false stories peddled from the start of the pandemic, such as all mosques being kept open, Muslims secretly congregating - and even that Muslims were going to gather together in the month of Ramadan, all against government guidance," said Versi.

    Given that the first five doctors to die from coronavirus were from Muslim backgrounds, Versi added such narratives erased the sacrifice of those on the front lines.

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    "These stories are not only untrue and dangerous, but also undermine the mammoth work of Muslims in supporting the national effort, from working on the front line, with a number of Muslim medics having lost their lives, to setting up community initiatives to help those who are vulnerable.

    "We can only urge mainstream commentators to avoid such an irresponsible and reckless framing, especially at a time when community solidarity is all the more important," he added.

    Tell Mama, a group which monitors anti-Muslim attacks, reported dozens of incidents in March, where far-right groups were supposedly spreading conspiracy theories blaming Muslims for the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The group have also had to debunk numerous social media posts spreading fake news. Among them was a tweet alleging some Muslims in Wembley, northwest London, were ignoring social distancing regulations by praying on the road.

    Suriyah Bi is a lecturer at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, conducting research into how British Muslims prepare and cope with the coronavirus. Speaking of her findings, having so far surveyed 283 people, Bi told Al Jazeera:

    "Blaming Muslims for the spread of the virus is absolutely unfounded, as our ongoing study demonstrates that 100 percent of British Muslims who have thus far taken part in the study are strongly adhering to social distancing measures and are not attending religious and social gatherings."

    In 2018, the Royal College of Psychiatrists voiced concerns over the disproportionate and "significant, negative impact" of racism on "a person's life chances and mental health" in communities from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. Citing the findings of the report, Bi voiced additional concerns over how scapegoating narratives could "pose a risk to public health" as such could exacerbate the "social-psychological impact" of a community already under strain.

    "We know that the first 10 doctors who have died from the virus [in the UK] are BAME, and the population is known to be at greater risk of infection. We do not know if socio-psychological factors, including those brought on by Islamophobia and discrimination, increase risk levels.

    "Indications from a cross-section of data from mental health, socioeconomic status and discrimination suggest there is a correlation. Thus, we must treat any scapegoating narratives as posing a risk to public health."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News