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Jean Lau Chin Ed.D.
Jean Lau Chin Ed.D.

Crisis Leadership: The Coronavirus Pandemic and Xenophobia

What leaders need to do.

The novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and local governments in the US took quick action—universities and museums closed; events were canceled or postponed. Social distancing is now the norm to prevent the further spread of the virus throughout the world by avoiding social gatherings.

Other countries already began taking such precautions with nationwide lockdowns in Italy, Spain, and France. China was first to respond with what the World Health Organization called “perhaps the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” including closing down manufacturing sectors, sharing information widely, executing mass testing, and quarantining millions of people. Using a command and control leadership approach, it quickly and effectively resulted in a steady decrease and containment of the virus.

Italy, on the other hand, demonstrated a slow response and lack of coordination. While initially conveying that everything was under control, they shut down schools, sporting events, and tourism sites two days later. In the US, there has been an attempt to control the narrative by downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic until this week when the US declared a national emergency. The lesson is clear—in a crisis, leaders can create panic and distrust when they rapidly change their messaging. When leaders attempt to reassure by underestimating the potential spread of the virus, or not acting in coordination, trust, and transparency erode. Crises are best faced with cohesive, decisive, and consistent action.

A side effect of the coronavirus has been the tendency to scapegoat and blame “the other.” Many individuals initially and continued to refer to it as the “Chinese Virus,” the “Wuhan Virus,” or a “Foreign Virus.” These phrases reflect underlying xenophobia towards members of our Asian communities. Viruses do not have nationalities or ethnic appearances—so why this unwarranted discrimination towards ethnic Chinese and other Asian Americans through harmful stereotyping and misinformation about coronavirus implying that they are a disease-carrying group? In the US, Chinese and Asian Americans have become the target of physical and verbal attacks, xenophobia, and microaggressions. Here are a few examples:

  1. A woman wearing a face mask was punched and kicked by a man who called her "diseased.” Excerpted from NBC News (February 5, 2020).
  2. Amy Wong Mok, the president of the Asian American Cultural Center, reported that an Asian American "just coughed a little bit because she was coming in from the cold air and then people left." Mok noted that, "Just a small cough and the people just left, left her like the plague… At least they left. They didn't attack her..." Excerpted from CBS News Austin (February 7, 2020).
  3. “A 16-year-old boy in California's San Fernando Valley was physically attacked this week by bullies in his high school who accused him of having the coronavirus — simply because he is Asian American...” Excerpted from CBS News (February 14, 2020).
  4. A Facebook message encouraged people not to patron Asian businesses stating, “We urge citizens to stay away from Chinese supermarkets, shops, fast food outlets, restaurants and businesses...” Excerpted from the Brooklyn Eagle (March 5, 2020)
  5. Emily Park, an animation fellow at Business Insider who is Korean-American, was on the subway in Manhattan on Monday when she cleared her throat. A woman stared at her for several moments and then promptly got up and moved seats farther away. Excerpted from Business Insider (March 7, 2020).
  6. A woman was confronted on the subway by somebody yelling, "Where is your corona mask you Asian b—h," before punching the woman dislocating her jaw. Excerpted from the New York Post (March 10, 2020).

These 2020 examples show how easily people tend to scapegoat and target minority groups, and in this case, Asians as a threat to the Western world during times of crisis—a phenomenon prevalent when we categorize people based on stereotypes, blame victims for their plight, and maintain an outgroup bias of negatively treating those perceived as different. In the United States, we have seen the Chinese Massacre (1871), the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Executive Order 9066 (1942) that resulted in the mass incarceration and torture of Japanese individuals, and Executive Order 13769 (2017) which banned the entry into the United States from several Muslim majority countries in the West Asian, Central Asian, and Northern African countries.

It is the responsibility of our leaders to contain such tendencies by addressing the vulnerability and stress experienced by all and not deflect attention from the crisis at hand by “otherizing” it as a foreign influence. Crisis leadership is not only acting with cohesive, decisive, and consistent action toward the coronavirus, but also avoiding the tendency to scapegoat so that we can all combat this pandemic virus together—both the physical health and psychological consequences. We are in times of crisis. Leadership is more important now. It’s time to model our humanity toward all and work together to restore our health and safety.


Glazer, R. (March 10, 2020) Coronavirus is a Massive Challenge for World Leaders. Here’s what China, Italy and the United States Teach Us about Leadership. Retrieved from…

About the Author
Jean Lau Chin Ed.D.

Jean Lau Chin, Ed.D., ABPP is Professor at Adelphi University with a focus on leadership, diversity, and cultural competence.

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