The multidimensional aspect of the pandemic is often referred to in political debates and in the media, as it has not only health but also economic and social implications. Due to the urgent, critical and often discouraging nature of COVID-19, the society is reacting to the advancement of the emergency by experiencing emotions such as fear and rejection, stimulated by the spread of false information. This is the case of migrants, who are frequently accused of bringing the virus to a certain country or of causing the increase in cases. Migrants are immediate victims of accusations that, however, often lack solid grounds.
There are many stories of misinformation and alarmism in the Americas, such as the one that concerned a group of Salvadoran immigrants who arrived in Oluto, a town in southern Veracruz, in Mexico, and were welcomed in a specialized shelter for humanitarian reasons and to avoid further contagions. The immigrants were victims of false statements propagated by some media, which reported an incorrect number of migrants and described them as carriers of the virus, although their state of health was being monitored.
Similar stories and complaints can be traced in other countries in the region. In places where the figure of the migrant is sometimes used as a scapegoat, the advance of the virus has once again accentuated the unfavorable perception of the migrant population. Accused of bringing or disproportionately contributing to the transmission of COVID-19, migrants go through painful experiences that worsen the precarious situations in which they often live.
Migrants children and adolescents, who suffer from more vulnerable conditions, are particularly affected. According to a UNICEF report, along with the advance of the pandemic, there has been a sudden increase in deportations, especially of children and adolescents. The deportations prevented immigrants from complying with asylum application procedures and were carried out without verified evidence that they were affected by the virus or not. Therefore, the damaging narrative and misinformation about the figure of the migrant during the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing not only to a perception of the foreigner that is permeated with xenophobic traits, but also to the worsening of the precariousness of the state of the migrants.
In Costa Rica xenophobic incidents were also experienced by the Nicaraguan population. When new outbreaks of COVID-19 were found last June in certain agricultural areas of the country, as well as construction sites and other sectors that employ migrant workers, particularly from Nicaragua, migrants were seen as responsible for the advancement of the pandemic in the Central American country. In particular, the outbreaks registered in some piñeras located in the city of Los Chiles in the north of the country, which transported irregular migrants without complying with any type of health protocol, provoked further xenophobic reactions towards the Nicaraguan migrant population instead to hold those who mobilized them accountable.
Weeks later, in the central american country, the high percentage of the migrant population residing in barracks or informal homes in the Greater Metropolitan Area, was identified as a possible source of contagion. Local authorities reacted by closing some of the properties with fences to prevent residents from leaving. In this regard, some members of the Costa Rican academic community pointed out that the attention of the media has not been sufficiently directed towards the practical and actual reasons that caused an increase in contagion in that area, such as the limits of space in the factories that did not allow maintaining minimum distances.
These episodes highlight the environment of tension, xenophobia and marginalization of migrants. They affirm the urgency of encouraging data verification, together with the search for reliable sources and the need for an inclusive and diverse approach in the media.
What can we do?
The impact of COVID-19 on people's perception of “others” has emphasized how misinformation about the virus is a dangerous phenomenon not only for people's health, but also for social cohesion.
To meet this new challenge, the United Nations launched the Verified campaign, which seeks to denounce misinformation around COVID-19 and at the same time invites to assume a critical attitude towards the information received. The campaign responds to the drastic consequences that disinformation can generate, such as false alarmism and discrimination. The news and false claims not only exacerbate the health crisis, raising doubts about what to do or not do to protect oneself from the virus, but also encourage expressions of hatred and xenophobia that try to blame certain populations for the pandemic. The United Nations initiative seeks to educate on the relevance of sharing reliable, verified and updated content, whether written or oral.
Verified calls for reflection before sharing and reporting news based on real events in a responsible manner. To achieve this, the campaign is articulated in three specific areas: science, to save lives; solidarity, to promote local and global cooperation; and solutions, to advocate for the support of the populations that have been affected by COVID-19. This triple purpose underlines the social and health impact of the campaign and the importance of rejecting unverified information.
Inviting our family and friends to share only verified and reliable information is the most effective action we can take right now to fight against disinformation and its very dangerous consequences on public health and the cohesion of our societies.