Is the Global Fight Against COVID-19 Reducing Prejudice?

Effects of the current pandemic on intergroup behavior.

Posted May 25, 2020

The fight against coronavirus has led the world to come together. All partners of the international community have undertaken unprecedented measures akin to wartime efforts. For the containment of virus transmission and spreading, country leaders have put citizens into lockdown, closed schools and factories, and told millions of people to work from home. These measures are examples of large-scale cooperation across individuals and communities. People indeed have borne dramatic changes and economic sacrifices to benefit other individuals and save lives.

These coordinated efforts across communities and governments to fight the spread of the disease have led some social scientists to suggest that coronavirus may have created opportunities to reduce prejudice and discrimination by promoting the reorganization of different social groups into a single community with shared values and goals.

But is this the case? Is coronavirus reducing stereotyping and discrimination?

Although some cooperative acts have been shown during the current pandemic—e.g., some countries donated medical supplies to others—news has reported an increasing number of stereotyping cases, harassment, and physical attacks directed at specific racial groups. In particular, there have been reports of violent actions against Asian people and stereotypical associations between coronavirus and China or its specific regions. For example, some government officials have referred to coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus” or “China virus.”

In addition, recent research on coronavirus statistics has shown that African Americans are overrepresented among reported coronavirus cases and deaths. For example, in Chicago, where African Americans represent 29% of the population, they account for more than 70% of all the coronavirus deaths. Authors have argued that the coronavirus may have contributed to fuel implicit bias (i.e., unconscious attitudes and stereotypes) toward African Americans and increase thus the racial disparities in the health-care system.

Why this is happening?

Threat perception. Fear is one of the central emotional responses during a pandemic. The experience of fear has an important impact on how people feel about themselves but also how they think and interact with others. Research indeed has shown that people who feel threatened with disease and experience fear tend to show greater intolerance and negative attitudes towards members who do not belong to their social group. Such negative emotions can even lead to violence against others. For example, history has shown how bubonic plague—the “Black Death”—has given rise to massive violence in Europe, including the murder of Catalans in Sicily and massacres of Jews.

What is a potential consequence of social stereotyping and discrimination during a pandemic?

The spread of the virus. Minority groups are particularly vulnerable during an epidemic. First, because minority people are more likely to experience economic disadvantage and thus face social inequality in access to medical resources. For example, people without health insurance may encounter barriers to appropriate health-care access. Second, because prejudice and stereotyping can lead minority people to hide symptoms of illness to avoid discrimination. They thus may tend to isolate themselves and avoid or delay seeking testing or treatment. These factors can generate serious health consequences for them and the whole community by increasing the risk of infection and the spread of the disease.

What can we do?

Provide accurate information. The World Health Organization recommends providing clear and comprehensive information about the virus. Stereotyping is the process by which people draw inferences about others based on their knowledge of the social category to which others belong. People are more susceptible to stereotypes when they lack accurate information. It is thus important to use communication that can reach all the different communities and that promotes the dissemination of correct and precise information and facts. This process includes promoting ethical journalism and effectively countering fake news to reduce beliefs in misinformation.

References

Bavel, J.J.V., Baicker, K., Boggio, P.S. et al. Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nat Hum Behav 4, 460–471 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0884-z.

Milam AJ, Furr-Holden D, Edwards-Johnson J, Webb B, Patton III JW, Ezekwemba NC, Porter L, Davis T, Chukwurah M, Webb AJ, Simon K, Franck G, Anthony J, Onuoha II G, Brown IM, Carson JT, Stephens BC (2020) Are clinicians contributing to excess African American COVID-19 deaths? Unbeknownst to them, they may be, Health Equity 4:1, 139–141, DOI: 10.1089/heq.2020.0015.

Russell, A. The rise of coronavirus hate crimes. The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-the-uk/the-rise-of-coronavirus-hate-crimes (2020).