Exploiting COVID-19 to spread hatred and fear: South Africa is vulnerable

In the past, foreign nationals coming into South Africa have been labelled as carriers of disease and other maladies that threaten the health of the population. There is a danger that the COVID-19 pandemic could result in an upsurge in such aggressive anti-immigrant sentiments, as has been observed elsewhere in the world. The HSRC’s Dr Steven Gordon explores this likelihood, using data about attitudes towards migrants from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS).

In the past, foreign nationals coming into South Africa have been labelled as carriers of disease and other maladies that threaten the health of the population. There is a danger that the COVID-19 pandemic could result in an upsurge in such aggressive anti-immigrant sentiments, as has been observed elsewhere in the world. The HSRC’s Dr Steven Gordon explores this likelihood, using data about attitudes towards migrants from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS).

Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians around the world have attempted to exploit the crisis for their own ends. In countries like Hungary and Poland, right-wingers have latched onto the crisis to push anti-immigrant agendas and seize more power. In one prominent example, populist Italian leader Matteo Salvini demonised African asylum seekers as carriers of the virus in February 2020. Such politicians have claimed that the outbreak gives credence to their past calls for aggressive immigration restrictions.

The COVID-19 crisis seems to be fuelling anti-immigrant animosity in places where foreigners are already scapegoated for other evils such as crime and unemployment. Given how immigrants are often similarly blamed in South Africa, there is a risk that the COVID-19 pandemic could fuel dangerous anti-immigrant aggression in the country.

But how widespread are beliefs that immigrants are harbingers of disease and contamination in South Africa? To answer this question, we can look at data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS). The survey series is administered by the HSRC and first started looking at public views on the link between international migration and disease in 2008. To obtain a picture of the country’s population, SASAS used a nationally representative probability sample of adults in the nation’s nine provinces aged 16 years and older and living in private households. More than 3000 South Africans participated in interviews conducted between mid-November and mid-December.

A sign in front of the Central Methodist Church in Cape Town, a week before refugees, who had stayed there for several months, were moved to a temporary facility in Bellville for the COVID-19 lockdown Photo: Andrea Teagle

In order to understand public attitudes towards foreigners and the spread of disease, SASAS respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed that foreign nationals brought disease into the country. Responses for the period 2008-2018 are presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Public attitudes about whether immigrants spread disease in South Africa, 2008-2018

Source: South African Social Survey (SASAS) series 2008-2018

In 2008, approximately half (53%) of the respondents agreed that immigrants spread disease and only a minority (27%) disagreed with the statement. The popularity of this belief began to fall in 2015 and only 44% of the population held this opinion in 2018. These results show that beliefs about the health risk of foreign nationals are widespread but that civil society and government have had some success in reducing this anti-immigrant narrative.

As one might imagine, perceptions about the link between foreigners and disease have an impact on the general public’s hostility towards the foreign-born. Let us consider welcoming predispositions in 2018. A quarter of the adult populace said that they would welcome all immigrants to South Africa. This can be compared with 47% who reported that they welcomed some and 26% who welcomed none. Almost two-thirds (64%) of the least welcoming thought that immigrants were a health risk.

When considering public attitudes towards foreign nationals, the issue of anti-immigrant violence cannot be ignored. Past research has highlighted this kind of violence as a problem in South Africa. Opinions about the connection between non-nationals and disease were also high amongst those who had recently engaged in violent action against immigrants. Of those who said in 2018 that they had taken part in this kind of violence in the previous five years, 65% believed that foreigners were a major driver of disease.

Some South African politicians have, in the past, sought to blame foreign nationals for a lack of health-care resources. Despite the absence of published evidence, former Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba has been particularly active in promoting this narrative, which has found traction among many South Africans. In SASAS 2018, 61% of the general public agreed with the statement that immigrants deplete the country’s resources. Such scapegoating tends to ignore the fact that immigrants and refugees face numerous obstacles navigating the health-care system. It is heartening to see that Dr Zweli Mkhize, the current minister of health, has not pursued similar populist fear mongering. During periods of pandemics, it is beneficial for the general public health that all have access to medical care regardless of nationality.

During periods of public health crisis, politicians may see anti-immigrant narratives as a way to distract voters from their own failures and to shore up electoral support. For months, US President Donald Trump had, for instance, been calling the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 by its common name. But then on 16 March 2020, he switched to a new moniker, the “Chinese virus”, in an apparent effort to deflect blame from his administration’s slow response to the pandemic. It now appears that Trump will make this anti-China messaging a central part of his 2020 re-election campaign and his confrontation with the World Health Organization seems to be part of that strategy. Such racialisations have happened previously, when Trump sought to build support for immigration restrictions by referring to African countries as “shitholes”.

In his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, President Cyril Ramaphosa has shown greater discretion, dignity and competence than politicians like Trump. He has not sought to fuel xenophobic passion in these times of uncertainty. Indeed, the South African government should be lauded for its swift and decisive actions in response to the crisis.

When the lockdown ends and South Africa starts to rebuild the economy, we will need foreigners to start businesses and help create jobs. Empirical evidence from a recent joint study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Labour Organization shows that foreign-owned businesses and workers contribute meaningfully to the national economy. Of course, resources are scarce during times of crisis and there is a natural fear that newcomers will take more than they give. But it is important not to let fear of outsiders lead us to retreat from the world and a return to economic growth.

Politicians and government officials must be careful not to play into explosive anti-immigrant narratives during these days of doubt and anxiety. As has been shown here, such narratives are a danger to social cohesion in the country. And, as citizens, we must be wary of those peddling distrust of foreigners for their own selfish ends.

Author: Dr Steven Gordon, senior research specialist, in the HSRC’s Democratic, Capable and Ethical State division
sgordon@hsrc.ac.za