Story at a glance

  • The coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world, with nine virus-related deaths already in Washington state.
  • The virus has begun to cause widespread panic that is now seeping into all facets of everyday life, from influencing purchasing decisions to exacerbating xenophobic behavior.
  • To understand why racism and xenophobia are so closely linked with pandemics we must first grasp the psychology behind these terrifying events.

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, the effects of the virus are beginning to infiltrate almost all aspects of our lives — from becoming a larger stock market driver than politics to driving a shortage of anti-bacterial and nonperishable items from places like Walmart and Costco. 

We’ve already reported on how the coronavirus has stoked fear, and consequently driven up occurrences of racism, around the world. These behaviors are not entirely unexpected considering how past breakouts of infectious diseases have played out in our society, such as the Ebola crisis in 2014 or the spread of swine flu in 2009. Our question now, though, is, why? And will a greater understanding of reasoning help us to combat xenophobia in the future?

The psychology of pandemics

“It’s an important but complicated issue, and this racism or blaming of particular groups of people has happened with every pandemic and serious outbreak,” says Steven Taylor, author of the book “Psychology of Pandemics.” “Heading back as far as we know, it's partly because human beings are tribalistic in nature — we're socialized to evolve in small groups. And because most of the important infectious diseases that wiped out groups of people were brought in by foreigners, if you think about Europeans settling in the Americas [they] brought influenza and smallpox, which wiped out the indigenous people. So, we as humans, to some extent have a built-in xenophobia.”

“There's no excuse for racism, but it does happen, and it happens most during these sorts of outbreaks,” says Taylor.

Taylor explains that this sort of xenophobia isn’t limited to interactions between different cultural or racial groups, but that it also tends to happen within those groups as well. “During the SARS outbreak, survivors were even discriminated against and shunned, even though they had recovered. It’s as if they were perpetually tainted — health care workers, hospital workers were shunned in their communities. There were reports of health care workers being told that their children were not welcome back into kindergarten because their parents worked with SARS patients in hospitals, so you can see that xenophobia extended even to health care workers and survivors of infection, so we may have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discrimination.”


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Planning for the worst

“I think we will see a reduction in racism as this infection becomes well established in North America,” says Taylor. “That's because once the virus is well established and widespread in America it's going to become everyone's problem. The virus does not discriminate. In some ways that could be the only good thing that comes out of this interaction: that might serve to pull communities together to work together to deal with the problem.”

Taylor says that government leaders must speak up to maintain public trust and discourage racist behavior, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already begun to do. The CDC released a fact sheet on their website to make sure the public is aware of “the facts about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19),” and to “help stop the spread of rumors.”

People of Asian descent, including Chinese Americans, are not more likely to get COVID-19 than any other American. Help stop fear by letting people know that being of Asian descent does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19. 

“Let's just call it a pandemic, because it will be pandemic within days or weeks,” warns Taylor. “A pandemic is essentially a psychological phenomenon. Whereas psychology influences how people react and whether they follow the advice to contain the infection, and crucial to that is trust in their community leaders. And so our leaders need to be transparent, they need to maintain public trust, and they need to offer advice about things like racism and need to lead by example — to send out a consistent message that racism is not an acceptable or sane way of dealing with this problem.”


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Published on Mar 05, 2020