People wear masks as they wait for the arrivals at the International terminal at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Saturday, January 25, 2020. Leaders of Toronto’s Chinese community said the racist attitudes that led to widespread discrimination against Chinese Canadians during the SARS epidemic are threatening to resurface during the current outbreak of a new coronavirus.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Why do people get xenophobic when diseases like coronavirus hit?

Professor says the instinct is there from ancient times, but isn’t excusable

A B.C. psychologist says that while being cautious about the coronavirus is a good idea, people shouldn’t let that fear create scapegoats to blame for the disease.

As of Tuesday, there are two confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the province, and five total Canada-wide. All cases are linked to either the patient going to Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the epidemic, or having close contact with people who were in the area. More than 20,000 people have been infected worldwide, with at least 425 deaths attributed to the virus. Most of the deaths and infections have been in China.

VIDEO: Plane bringing Canadians back from Wuhan will make Vancouver pit stop

Chinese Canadians have urged their fellow citizens to not succumb to the same racism that gripped the country during the SARS epidemic, which also originated in China and killed 44 here at home.

“We’re already seeing it,” said Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and psychiatry professor at UBC.

“We can expect to see a rise in racism and xenophobia. We can also expect to see a rise in conspiracy theories.”

Taylor said that fear of strangers in ingrained in societies from centuries, if not millennia, back.

“You can go back to the rat plague of the 14th century and you can find the same sort of xenophobia and racism,” he told Black Press Media by phone.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s almost a ‘normal’ way that people react when threatened with infection. They become suspicious of outsiders in a desperate attempt to make sense of the situation and protect themselves.”

The tendency is dubbed the “behavioural immune system” by psychologists.

“It’s an evolved psychological mechanism for keeping people safe,” Taylor said.

“It’s based on the idea that your biological immune system isn’t enough to keep you safe.”

VIDEO: Chinese Canadians warn against a repeat of the racism they faced during SARS

Taylor said that in the past, when humans did not understand how viruses and diseases spread, it seemed safer to stick to what was familiar.

Outsiders, he pointed out, have brought devastating diseases in the past, as when European colonizers brought small pox to the Americas, where it decimated the Indigenous population.

“[Europeans] brought in disease to which the Indigenous peoples had no immunity,” Taylor said.

But although that history can explain why xenophobia is such a common response, it’s not a reason in this day and age, he noted.

“That’s not to say it excuses racism – it doesn’t,” Taylor said.

“Logically, it doesn’t make sense.”

Taylor said the fear is likely higher in areas of the country where the population is more homogenous, versus in a place like Vancouver where people of Chinese origin are more common.

“In cultures like Vancouver where there is a high proportion of people from southeast Asian backgrounds, those people are more likely to be seen as part of the community and not like outsiders,” he said.

The best defence against the panic and fear, Taylor said, is simply education and self-awareness of your own biases.

“Be aware of falling into the trap of assuming just because someone’s from China they are infected. Reason with yourself about things like that and look to reliable resources.”

READ MORE: New coronavirus has infected more than 20,600 globally

READ MORE: Second B.C. coronavirus case identified in Vancouver region

– with files from The Canadian Press


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Comments are closed

Just Posted

Mission company wins third award for Kermode Cabin

Lacey Construction nets Georgie Award for project at Sandpiper Resort in Harrison Mills

Two Chilliwack women make weekly Crime Stoppers most wanted list

Ashley Felix and Raina McDonald wanted on unrelated issues

Kilby Park in Harrison Mills under water

Area is often subject to flooding, Historic Site will remain open through the summer

Emergency relief fund offers grants to Mission businesses

Grants of up to $2,500 support immediate business-operation needs

Foundry Abbotsford celebrates two years of service

Agency provides support to youth ages 12 to 24 and their families

All community COVID-19 outbreaks declared over in B.C.

Abbotsford manufacturer cleared by Dr. Bonnie Henry

B.C. First Nations vow to keep fighting after Trans Mountain pipeline appeal denied

Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation and Coldwater Indian Band made the application

‘Queue jumpers’ not welcome in B.C. as COVID-19 U.S. cases rise: Horgan

Premier Horgan said he’s heard concerns that Americans have stopped at Vancouver hotels instead of heading to their destination

Police arsenal deployed to avoid potentially violent situation: Mounties

Langley RCMP arrest armed Vancouver man after Tasering him on side street

US officer resigns after photos, connected to death of black man in 2019, surface

Elijah McClain died, last summer, after police placed him in a chokehold

Black worker files discrimination complaint against Facebook

Oscar Veneszee, Jr. has worked as an operations program manager at Facebook since 2017

Ottawa jail inmates argue anti-COVID measures a breach of charter rights

The prisoners allege guards did not wear masks until April 25

Nestle Canada selling bottled water business to local family-owned company

The Pure Life bottled water business is being sold to Ice River Springs

Most Read