The unsanitary other and racism during the pandemic: analysis of purity discourses on social media in India, France and United States of America during the COVID-19 pandemic

Desmarais, C., Roy, M., Nguyen, M. T., Venkatesh, V., & Rousseau, C. (2023, mars)

Anthropology & Medicine

Vol. 30/ Num. 1 | 16 p.

The global rise of populism and concomitant polarizations across disenfranchised and marginalized groups has been magnified by so-called echo chambers, and a major public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to fuel these intergroup tensions. Media institutions disseminating information on ways to prevent the propagation of the virus have reactivated a specific discursive phenomenon previously observed in many epidemics: the construction of a defiled ‘Other’. With anthropological lenses, discourse on defilement is an interesting path to understand the continuous emergence of pseudo-scientific forms of racism. In this paper, the authors focus on ‘borderline racism’, that is the use of an institutionally ‘impartial’ discourse to reaffirm the inferiority of another race. The authors employed inductive thematic analysis of 1200 social media comments reacting to articles and videos published by six media in three different countries (France, United States and India). Results delineate four major themes structuring defilement discourses: food (and the relationship to animals), religion, nationalism and gender. Media articles and videos portrayed Western and Eastern countries through contrasting images and elicited a range of reaction in readers and viewers. The discussion reflects on how borderline racism can be an appropriate concept to understand the appearance of hygienic othering of specific subgroups on social media. Theoretical implications and recommendations on a more culturally sensitive approach of media coverage of epidemics and pandemics are discussed.