While the pandemic has created a serious global health and economic crisis, it has also stoked the flames of hatred against people of Asian descent.
In a recent essay, political science and economic researchers say anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiment in Italy during the pandemic offers a case study in how resentment and fear, fueled by unemployment and right-wing rhetoric, can spill over into hate crimes.
Italy, one of the pandemic’s earliest and hardest-hit countries, experienced an upsurge in anti-Asian hate crimes after the outbreak of COVID-19, wrote researchers Gemma Dipoppa of Stanford University, and Guy Grossman and Stephanie Zonszein, both of the University of Pennsylvania.
Using date from Lunaria, a non-governmental organization that curates information on hate crimes reported by the news media, and collects data directly from NGO and similar organizations, the researchers created a baseline trend of anti-Asian crimes from 2007 through 2020.
Cautioning that hate crimes against Asians had been relatively rare in comparison to similar incidents against other ethnic groups, they found that the number of anti-Asian hate crimes jumped “eightfold” since 2007 to over 40 a month following the pandemic-stricken months of February and March of 2020.
“Remarkably, in February and March 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes exceeded crimes against African-origin immigrants, the most targeted group before the pandemic’s outbreak,” the researchers wrote.
“The national increase in hate crimes (in Italy) as a result of COVID-19 can be accounted for by crimes against Asians.”
Drilling down further, the researchers found the increase in hate crimes occurred in regions where there was also a concentration of cities experiencing high rates of unemployment and economic distress.
The Far-Right Media’s Role
The increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in Italy is further linked to the sensationalist reporting by far-right media outlets on the pandemic, the essay noted.
In early 2020, conservative media publications focused on the fact that the virus originated in China. But, deploying rhetoric that was also used by U.S. extremists, conservatives in Italy framed the pandemic as a direct responsibility of Chinese individuals, according to the report.
For example, one Italian state governor suggested that COVID-19 was caused by “poor Chinese hygiene,” while another local politician used Twitter to say he hoped Chinese COVID-19 patients would die.
The researchers found that in January of 2020, just as the coronavirus was beginning to spread across the globe, the total number of negative tweets aimed at Asians climbed from under 1,000 a month to just under 4,000, according to the report.
Other examples of “Sinophobia” included: a professor at the University of Milan of Chinese origin who was verbally abused on a train; Chinese tourists who were insulted and spat on while visiting Venice; a Chinese restaurant that was set on fire; and children with Chinese-origin parents who were prevented from attending school allegedly to reduce the risk of contagion.
The authors said their findings made clear that governments should work proactively to protect immigrant groups who become scapegoats during a major crisis.
“We conclude that during a crisis causing economic grievance, ethnic minority and immigrant communities should receive better protection, especially in the most affected localities,” the authors wrote.
“However, we also acknowledge that protecting these communities may be challenging, particularly, in light of the evidence we find suggesting that local institutions managed by far-right politicians can escalate the hateful reactions to the crisis.”
They concluded: “Therefore, places where interventions to protect these communities are the most needed, are also places where we can expect the government to favor them the least.”
Gemma Dipoppa is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Science at Stanford University where she studies the strategies used by criminal organizations to influence politicians, their capacity to drain public resources and the effectiveness of policies to fight against them.
Guy Grossman is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His research is in applied political economy, with substantive focus on the intersection of technology and governance, political accountability, and immigration, among other topics.
Stephanie Zonszein is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Development Research Initiative (PDRI). She is a political scientist studying the political behavior of immigrants and elites in culturally diverse democracies.
The full report can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.