Possible Unintended Consequences of COVID-19 News Coverage
What are the potential consequences of focusing on COVID-19 racial disparities?
Posted Jun 02, 2020
This post was co-authored by Allison L. Skinner, Apoorva Sarmal, and Leah Cha.
In April 2020, news sources began reporting dramatic racial disparities in infection and mortality rates of COVID-19 in the U.S. This trend was not entirely surprising, given what we already knew about the long-standing racial disparities in chronic health conditions in the U.S., paired with evidence that COVID-19 is much more likely to result in severe illness and death among those with underlying health conditions. In addition, racial and ethnic minority group members make up a larger share of the low wage earners who are deemed essential (e.g., workers in meat packing plants, bus drivers, grocery store checkers)—resulting in increased COVID-19 exposure. Nonetheless, these reports established an explicit association between COVID-19 and racial/ethnic minority groups, which, from a social psychological perspective, could have some unintended consequences.
When the public is repeatedly exposed to messages pairing racial and ethnic minority group members with COVID-19, this has the potential to establish a cognitive association. Thus, by repeatedly pairing racial and ethnic minority groups with negative stimuli (i.e., information about COVID-19), these media stories could be thought of as conditioning an association between COVID-19 and members of racial minority groups. We readily saw this happening earlier on in the COVID-19 pandemic with the president deliberately referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”—stoking biases against those of Asian descent. All of this has resulted in a dramatic spike in harassment, discrimination, and hate crimes against Asian Americans in 2020. Now, reports of racial disparities in COVID-19 infection present the potential for COVID-19 related discrimination to be spread to other racial and ethnic groups. In addition, because COVID-19 is an infectious disease, racial and ethnic minority group members may come to activate the psychological disease avoidance system—resulting in disgust, fear, and avoidance.
This connection between members of racial minority groups and the virus seems to be further exacerbated when members of racial and ethnic minority groups wear masks in public. Media outlets have been criticized for featuring images of Asians in masks in much of the early coverage of COVID-19, reinforcing the connection between Asians (especially when masked) and the virus. Indeed, Asian Americans have reported feeling that wearing a mask in pubic is stigmatizing, making them even more of a target for hostility and discrimination than they already were. This is only intensified by mixed government messages and the growing political divide over mask-wearing. Although it is unclear whether wearing masks heightens disease stigma for African Americans, many have expressed concerns that wearing a mask in public makes them a target. Their concern is that wearing fabric masks or bandanas to cover the lower part of the face plays into stereotypes of African Americans being criminals and gang members. In a widely publicized incident in April, two Black men were removed from a Walmart store by police for wearing masks, and many African Americans worry that if wearing a mask makes them look like a threat it could actually put their life in jeopardy. Although racial minority groups face different stereotypes, the common thread is that masks could help protect individuals and their communities, but that wearing them may put minority group members at risk for racialized harassment, discrimination, or worse.
Another potential consequence of drawing attention to racial disparities is the level of threat that the public perceives from COVID-19. Social psychological research indicates that people are less attentive to others' pain when the sufferer is distant in time, space, or kinship, and that they experience less empathy in response to the suffering of people of other races. Thus, to the extent that White Americans come to associate COVID-19 with racial and ethnic minority group members, the threat may feel more psychologically distant--and therefore less concerning. For instance, on Friday, May 1, there were demonstrations against COVID-19-related government restrictions (such as shelter-in-place orders) in 10 states (California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Tennessee and Washington). According to the most recent estimates, White people are underrepresented among those who have died of COVID-19 in all but two of these states.
The graph depicts the top 20 states (including Washington, D.C.) in which White residents are most underrepresented among COVID-19 deaths (relative to their proportion within the state population). As you can see from the graph, five (Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Tennessee) of the 10 states that had protests on May 1 are among the top 20 in terms of COVID-19 racial disparities. Moreover, seven (South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Alaska, Mississippi, Georgia, and Pennsylvania) of the remaining 15 states with the largest COVID-19 mortality disparities had already reopened as of May 1. In fact, this may explain why there were not more protests at that point. Eleven of the top 20 states in terms of the largest COVID-19 racial disparities had already reopened as of May 1—approximately two weeks after the news of racial disparities began flooding the media.
From a social psychological perspective, it is easy to see how publicizing racial disparities in COVID-19 infection and mortality rates could result in concerning unintended consequences. Many state governments and corporate business owners are eager to get people off of unemployment and restart the economy, but the virus is continuing to kill thousands of Americans every day. We argue that knowing that those deaths are disproportionately taking place in racial and ethnic minority communities, may tip the scales, leading this to be perceived as an economically acceptable death toll. Linking the disease to racial minority groups could both increase racial biases and reduce public concern about contracting COVID-19. Perhaps most troubling, is the possibility that this may put racial and ethnic minority group members at increased risk by limiting the use of strategies (e.g., social distancing, wearing masks) that can actually protect our communities from COVID-19 and limit the spread of the virus.
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Neuberg, S. L., Kenrick, D. T., & Schaller, M. (2011). Human threat management systems: self-protection and disease avoidance. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35, 1042–1051. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.08.011
Olson, M. A., & Fazio, R. H. (2001). Implicit Attitude Formation Through Classical Conditioning. Psychological Science, 12, 413–417. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00376
We would like to acknowledge Dante Johnson for stimulating the ideas that led to this post.