Overseas Indians hope renaming of Covid-19 variants will reduce stigma

Since the variant was called "the Indian variant", many people of Indian ancestry have felt stress in countries that they call home.
Since the variant was called "the Indian variant", many people of Indian ancestry have felt stress in countries that they call home.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGALORE - Indians living overseas are hoping that the renaming of a coronavirus strain first identified in India will take away some of the stigma they have faced.

What was officially a difficult jumble of numbers and widely referred to as the "Indian variant" is now just the Delta variant.

A doctor of Indian origin, who was on Covid-19 duty in a Texas hospital for most of the past year, said he had become especially conscious about his ethnicity in recent months.

In April, a Caucasian infected with the coronavirus refused to let the 30-something doctor see him, and demanded different physicians till the one assigned was not of East or South Asian descent.

"It was my worst day at work," said the doctor, who, like the others interviewed for this report, did not agree to be named.

"Asian Americans faced hate crimes after (former president Donald) Trump called Covid-19 the 'Chinese flu', and now brown people are being targeted since the so-called Indian variant came up," he added.

Ever since the B1617 strain, first identified in India, began to be commonly referred to as  the "Indian variant", many people of Indian ancestry in the United States, Britain, Australia, Singapore and elsewhere have felt anxious in countries they have considered home for years.

As studies showed the B1617.2 variant to be more contagious, alarmist posts on Facebook and WhatsApp advised people to avoid folk from New Jersey, where a large community of Indian Americans live.

In Singapore, the new variant and early Covid-19 clusters in migrant-worker dormitories led to reports of some allegedly racist incidents.

On May 11, a 30-year-old man allegedly kicked a 55-year-old Indian woman for not wearing a mask in Choa Chu Kang while she was brisk walking. Police arrested the man, who had also reportedly uttered racial slurs.

The incident prompted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to call for racial harmony.

An anxious academic of Indian origin, who has lived in Singapore for 17 years, said: "My parents-in-law do brisk walking daily and they don't need to wear masks while exercising. But after the incident, I have advised them to wear masks even if exercising."

As crowded migrant-worker accommodation in Singapore became Covid-19 hotspots last year, some South Asian dormitory residents said they began to feel stigmatised.

Mr Indrajit Veerakumar, 29, an oil rig operator working in Singapore for two years, said he was treated well by the Health Ministry when he was infected. But he was desperate to return home to Tamil Nadu because he could not endure the quarantine rules and "dirty looks" from people who seemed to treat "us dormitory people as virus carriers".

Fears of virus transmission have heightened simmering xenophobic and racist sentiments in many countries.

Last month, Australia's ban on flights from India, because "a majority of India arrivals tested positive for the coronavirus", was condemned as racist.

Calling out the double standards of such policies, Australia's former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane questioned if it was only about containing the virus, asking why travellers from Italy, the US and Europe "didn't see differential treatment" at the height of their Covid-19 waves.

A senior executive in a software company, who relocated to Sydney from San Francisco in May, said she found colleagues taking "a step back" on meeting her because, although she had flown in from the US, "they see Indian".

The 35-year-old laughed it off, but was still unsettled over experiencing stigma even in her upper-class professional circles.

India's Information Technology Ministry issued an order in mid-May, calling on social media companies to remove thousands of posts referencing the "Indian variant".

Following this and other reports of certain nationalities being demonised, the World Health Organisation issued a new system of labelling variants. Instead of using the scientific format of letters and numbers that eventually led media organisations to use country names for convenience, it switched to Greek letters for more contagious strains.

The variant first discovered in Britain is now Alpha, while the strain first identified in India is Delta. The one found in South Africa is Beta and Gamma was reserved for that identified in Brazil.

The old names placed blame, said the executive in Sydney who welcomed the revised nomenclature. "Renaming will help 100 per cent," she added.