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Racial Equality in the
Time of Coronavirus
How has Australia’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic affected diverse communities? What lessons can be learned? And how can we ensure diverse communities are included in the road to recovery?
These were the central questions for panellists during the 2020 Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture, which the Australian Human Rights Commission presented in partnership with the European Union Delegation to Australia.
Nyadol Nyuon, a previous winner of the Commission’s ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ award, moderated the discussion. Panellists included Ahmed Dini, Diana Sayed and Jason Yat-Sen Li.
Mr Dini, a resident in the Melbourne towers that were subjected to a hard lockdown in July, said: “The year of COVID has shown the fault lines and also the pre-existing racism that exist within our society.”
He said the lockdown his community experienced “was the harshest and the hardest lockdown anywhere in the western world… and the reason we were all punished in this way is because we were seen as second-class citizens.”
Panellists discussed the significance of identity and storytelling in this context. They said stories about Australian values must be broadened out to include more diverse groups, because when only narrow stories are seen to represent Australian values it has the effect of ‘othering’ diverse communities.
CEO of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, Ms Sayed observed that facemasks have become a powerful metaphor for the major issues of 2020.
“The entire year has been marred by this idea of ‘I can’t breathe’ – whether it’s because of bushfires, or a global pandemic, or quite literally with George Floyd, or whether with the very weight of the systems that are on our neck every day, Ms Sayed said.
“I think minority communities – whether you’re Muslim or Asian Australian, or of African descent, or particularly the First Nations community – it’s really telling that, not only have fault lines come to light, but also inequality has been brought to light,” Ms Sayed said.
Jason Yat-Sen Li, a prominent advocate for Australia’s Chinese community, said the events of 2020 have been like “a perfect storm”.
“You’ve got pre-existing racial undercurrents, you’ve got the strategic competition and fear around China, and all of a sudden you’ve got this pandemic that descends on the community and this narrative that this is a China virus, that China caused it.
“If you put all those things together it’s dynamite. I think that is what caused a lot of the abuse directed towards Asian Australians.”
Mr Yat-Sen Li said racial abuse is always distressing, but that it’s all the more insidious for what it implies: “It says to people that you’re not Australian, that you don’t belong here, and you have no place in this society.”
Panellists talked about ways in which the stories of diverse Australian could be better represented. They said the media has an important role to play, but also that individuals should considers ways in which they themselves engage with diverse Australians.
The Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture is an annual public event that honours the memory of the Hon. Kep Enderby QC (1926-2015), who as Attorney-General introduced the Racial Discrimination Bill to parliament in 1975.
Each year, the lecture advances public understanding and debate about the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, racism and race relations. It was presented as an online panel discussion this year in order to be COVID-safe.
In his introduction to the lecture, EU Ambassador to Australia Michael Pulch said: “Our democratic systems will not tolerate racial discrimination in any form, during a pandemic or at any time. During this crisis we can test how strongly we hold to these values.”
Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan, who hosted the lecture, said: “Covid-19 has demonstrated the enduring importance of the Racial Discrimination Act and highlighted the right of all Australians to be able to live free from discrimination.
The EU Delegation to Australia has worked in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission since 2015.