Racism in times of Covid-19

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Religions for Peace Australia presents Racism in times of Covid-19, an account of racism and extremism in times of pandemic. This video – delivered by Emeritus Professor Desmond Cahill, OAM, touches on many bases and causes of racism generally, in addition to addressing far-right extremism in Australia, which has undoubtedly contributed to this issue.

Racism in times of Covid-19

The absence of data illustrating the increase in racial abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic shows Australia needs to do better at recording and monitoring racism.

In February of 2021, the Australian Human Rights Commission recorded more complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act than at any time over the past twelve months. Since then the rate of complaints has been within the usual range, albeit towards the high end. One third of all racism complaints made to the Commission since the start of February have been related to COVID-19.



This information has been widely quoted in the media. But although our statistics are truthful and accurate, they do not tell the full story of what is happening in the community, nor do they illustrate the sustained spike in racism that has been widely observed. This is because the Commission’s data only captures complaints it receives that allege a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the volume of these is fairly small in statistical terms.

Police statistics about racially motivated crime would likely provide a better indication of the increase in racism seen during the pandemic, but most state and territory police do not comprehensively record this data. Enquiries five years ago by Australia’s foremost researcher in bias crime, Professor Gail Mason at Sydney University, found only NSW, Victoria and Queensland said they systematically collect information about crimes motivated by prejudice.

In the wake of the Christchurch massacre last year, former NSW Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas highlighted the need for better police reporting of hate crimes. As Kaldas said, Australia is way behind countries like the US and UK, and information about race hate crimes is vital in addressing right wing extremism. More recently ASIO chief Mike Burgess labelled far-right groups Australia’s most challenging security threat.

Many forms of racism, however, are not criminal in nature. Where can a person go if a stranger verbally hurls racial abuse at them in the street, or online? It’s not usually a matter police would investigate, and in many instances there are practical difficulties in identifying the perpetrator.

Comprehensive collection and evaluation of data should be a cornerstone of a national anti-racism strategy, as it would tell us how we are doing at combating racism. It would tell us where hotspots are and where we need to focus our attention. It would provide a true indication of trends that need addressing, such as the spike in racism prompted by COVID-19. And, most importantly, it would mean anyone who experiences or witnesses racism could have confidence their story would support efforts to stamp out racism altogether.

About: Emeritus Professor Desmond Cahill, OAM.

Educated in Australia and Italy, Des Cahill, is Emeritus Professor of Intercultural Studies at RMIT University, and has been a world leading researcher and teacher in the areas of immigrant, cross-cultural and international studies for more than four decades.

Since the events of September 11th 2001, he has played a major role in researching and bringing together the various faith communities in Australia and across the world through his research and community activities. He currently chairs the Australian chapter of Religions for Peace International, the world’s largest interfaith organisation, and represents Australia on the executive committee of the Religions for Peace Asia – in October 2008, he was elected its Deputy Moderator by the Governing Board representing the 18 member nations including Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the two Koreas. He is a member of the Victoria Police Multifaith Advisory Council.

In 2006, he led Melbourne’s successful bid, in competition against Delhi and Singapore, to host the Parliament of the World’s Religions in December 2009, the world’s largest interfaith gathering. As a consequence, he has been made an Ambassador for Club Melbourne, a group of 100 leading scientists and academics, to promote the image of Melbourne around the world.

In the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, he was awarded the Order of the Medal of Australia for “services to Intercultural Education and to the Interfaith Movement”. Professor Cahill is Chair, Religions for Peace Australia, and Deputy Moderator, Religions for Peace Asia.