Everyone can probably tell by now that no country on Earth has been immune to the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, and in turn, this pandemic hasn’t been immune to causing controversy, be it directly or indirectly. It didn’t take that long for the COVID-19 to be contaminated by racist undertones, and Malta has certainly been no exception.
The events of the past few months have been the culmination of what started as prejudiced attitudes towards Chinese people and other Asian communities as a result of the origins of the virus. Now, it has manifested itself in the form of racism towards African immigrants and refugees.
The spark which lit this fire can be traced back to the global outrage which was shown following the death of 46 year-old African American, George Floyd on May 25th, who was killed whilst being held detained by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd’s death reignited the calls for institutional reform in the United States with regards to police brutality and systemic racism, whilst also highlighting the importance of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in raising awareness of such issues. The movement didn’t take long to ignite condemnation and protests against racism even in other countries, and Malta was certainly no exception to the traction which this movement has been gaining on social media.
Malta is no stranger to racist elements being present within its society, be it the xenophobic sentiments held towards foreign workers, or the effect which illegal immigration has had on the island. This ethnocentrism has helped in creating a furore of Eurosceptic and anti-migration rhetoric, which often descends into nothing but racist rhetoric as well.
Racism harrowingly left its mark on Malta in the form of its first ever racially- motivated killing in April 2019, this being committed by two AFM soldiers and claiming the life of 42 year-old Ivorian immigrant, Lassana Cisse Souleymane. The fact that what costed the lives of both George Floyd and Lassana Cisse Souleymane boiled down to the colour of their skin was the most shocking aspect of these incidents.
Fast-forwarding to 2020, further controversy has been generated by the Maltese government’s decision to close Malta’s ports to migrant arrivals, after having accepted 60 immigrants to disembark on Maltese shores, with its reasoning being that Malta could not guarantee safety for migrants and does not have adequate resources to carry out search and rescue missions, in light of the strain created due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from causing hundreds of immigrants to remain stranded at sea, this measure led to several protests by youth activist Xandru Cassar, demanding that the Maltese government rescind its decision and re-open Malta’s ports to these migrants. The protests persisted even further when tourist boats owned by Captain Morgan Cruises were hosting a total of 425 migrants of Malta’s coast, all of which have now been docked in Malta following reports alleging that there had been commotion initiated by the migrants on board one of the boats was risking the lives of the crew members on board.
Subsequently, thanks to the backlash from these events, together with the significance of the BLM movement resonating even more amongst the Maltese population, a protest condemning widespread racism was organised in Valletta. Apart from the anti-racism movement, this protest also attracted the attention of several counter –protestors who assembled under the rallying cry of ‘All Lives Matter’, many of whom were supporters of the far-right parties in Malta, like Moviment Patrijotti Maltin and Imperium Europa. At face value, ‘All Lives Matter’ sounds like a completely legitimate phrase, as it suggests that the lives of all human beings are of equal importance, regardless of any immutable socio-economic, cultural or physical traits. Judging by the way black people are still subjected to racism and bigotry simply because of the colour of their skin, the claims of those who espouse that ‘all lives matter’ don’t seem so valid do they? Even more so when one considers that the ‘All Lives Matter’ counter- protest which occurred in Valletta was quickly described as having had racist connotations, as it quickly strayed away from giving the same amount of value to all forms of human life, even if the phrase used by the counter-protestors is meant to indicate otherwise.
If all lives do indeed matter, then the lives of black people ought to be on par with those of other people regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity and political affiliation. Ultimately, the words we use to denounce incidents of racism matter in terms of changing the hearts and minds of others, be it by means of organising protests, posting on social media, or writing articles like this one. However, all these can be just catalysts for change, and they need to be turned into actions to not just sound even louder, but to also be of real value, and help in making an actual difference in people’s lives. Only then, can racism stop being an even deadlier virus than what COVID-19 has already proven itself to be.
Written by: Jacob Callus