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Coronavirus and Racism: Fear, Stereotypes and Scapegoating

February 13, 2020

Coronavirus and Racism: Fear, Stereotypes and Scapegoating

ADL discusses the the historical implications of coronavirus and racism and how it has led to an outbreak of stereotypes, bias and scapegoating.


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Coronavirus and Racism: An Outbreak of Stereotypes

Global anxiety about the outbreak of the coronavirus has led to the spread of much misinformation and scapegoating. In schools and communities in the U.S., we have seen incidents of bias, harassment, bullying, isolation, exclusion and xenophobia against Chinese people and those who are perceived as being Chinese.

Coronavirus and Racism: Defining the Threat

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) coronaviruses are:

A large family of viruses found in both animals and humans. Some infect people and are known to cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). A novel coronavirus (CoV) is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans. The new or “novel” coronavirus, now called 2019-nCoV, had not previously detected before the outbreak was reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

As of February 10, 2020, over 35,000 illnesses and 811 deaths have been reported in mainland China due to the coronavirus. In the U.S., there are 12 confirmed cases of the virus and recently a U.S. citizen in Wuhan, China died from coronavirus. Chinese cities have been quarantined, borders have been sealed, and travel has been banned. The WHO has declared the coronavirus an international public health emergency.

It is an established fact that the coronavirus, while most likely originating in China, does not discriminate based on ethnic background or race. Virtually anyone can contract and contribute to the spread of this disease.

Coronavirus and Racism: Scapegoating Throughout History

The scapegoating that has taken place in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak is not new. We define scapegoating as: "Blaming an individual or group for something based on that person or group’s identity when the person or group is not responsible. Bias, prejudicial thinking and discriminatory acts can lead to scapegoating."

Contagious diseases often fuel scapegoating and xenophobia. As with any public health crisis, the fear of a pandemic leads to misinformation, conspiracy theories and scapegoating, especially on social media platforms and the internet. The seemingly endless news media coverage may make these diseases seem more threatening, widespread and deadly than they are.

Throughout history, we find examples of marginalized groups being scapegoated specifically around illness and disease. They quickly become targets of xenophobia, a fear of people perceived to be “foreign” or “strange.” In the 1920s, associations between germs and immigrants led to immigration restrictions in New York City.  In the 1980s in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Haitian immigrants were singled out as “high risk” and the Haitian community was stigmatized and blamed for spreading the disease. With the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, panic about the disease and xenophobia manifested in the U.S. It was dubbed “Fearbola” yet only nine people were infected. “Historically, in both popular and scientific discourse, contagious disease has often been linked, in a blanket way, to population groups thought to be ‘outsiders,” Merlin Chowkwanyun, historian and assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told Vox.

Scapegoating of victims can result in a loss of public compassion and empathy for those most directly affected by the disease.

coronavirus and racism: use the chart to identify symptoms of coronavirus
A chart detailing coronavirus symptoms and prevention,

Coronavirus and Racism: Bias and Scapegoating in Schools and Communities

Amid this current health crisis, misinformation, bias and scapegoating is increasing. False numbers, misinformation and fear-mongering is spreading on social media. Some Chinese people, and those who are East Asian or perceived to be Chinese, are being harassed, bullied, excluded and targeted. Although there has been only one reported case of the disease on college campuses, fear and panic are becoming more commonplace.

In the news every day, we hear stories about Asian people receiving suspicious looks, offensive comments in person and online, nervous glances and being shunned and isolated.  Extremists are using people’s fears about the coronavirus virus to spread racism and conspiracy theories, primarily using social media platforms to share their hateful views. It’s almost as if the fear of the spread of this virus has granted a free pass for some to give voice to racist and xenophobic views.

Coronavirus and Racism: How Can Schools and Families Address the Issue?

In a climate of panic and fear, it is important to share accurate information as a means of maintaining a realistic and fact-based understanding of the situation. The adults in young people’s lives can help provide accurate information, explore emotions, and, most importantly, play a role in reducing stereotyping and scapegoating.

  • Listen to young people’s fears and questions. When something like the coronavirus makes the daily news headlines, there is going to be fear, especially when it’s new and there isn’t a lot of information about the scale and extent of the threat to public health. Encourage young people to express those fears and strong feelings without resorting to misinformation and scapegoating. Listening to the nature of their fears will help you understand what they’re worried about and provide an opportunity to allay their concerns with as much factual information as possible.
  • Provide factual information. Familiarize yourself so that you can provide young people with accurate information about the disease, the health threat, and the prevention efforts. Direct students and young people to credible sources of information online, and teach them to identify sources that are less credible. This will help to quell irrational fears that lead to pervasive bias and scapegoating.  It can also tap into their empathy and compassion. Share My Lesson has lesson plans and resources on the topic. The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control websites provide timely information.
  • Teach about stereotypes and scapegoating. This latest example of scapegoating provides a teachable moment to discuss how scapegoating is used to blame an entire people for a societal problem. The scapegoating of Jews during the Holocaust and current day examples of anti-Muslim bias and scapegoating can be instructive in helping young people separate fact from fiction, understand the fear for what it is and not give rise to stereotypes, scapegoating and xenophobia. You can also encourage young people to use social media, as these teens used TikTok, to confront the bias directly.
  • Support targeted students. If individual students are targeted by bias, it is best to address it immediately and clearly.  Schools, communities and families should be proactive in stating visibly and emphatically that bias and scapegoating have no place at school. Model and teach young people how to act as an ally when others are targeted by bias and bullying.
  • Promote a respectful and inclusive school and classroom climate. In order to provide a safe and equitable environment for all, we need to address bias when we see it, no matter how large or small. All students should be treated with respect, compassion and equity in order to provide a positive school climate for all.

We should be able to understand and help prevent the spread of coronavirus and racism without resorting to stereotypes and xenophobia. Teaching young people about the disease and, at the same time, deconstructing how scapegoating works will pave the way to a deeper understanding and empathy for all people.


ADL is a leading anti-hate organization. Founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of anti-Semitism and bigotry, its timeless mission is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.


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