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

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

Just Posted

Fraser Health issued an overdose alert on Jan. 21, 2021 after an increase in overdoses over the past week in Chilliwack associated with a “greeny-blue/turquoise down substance.” (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Fraser Health issues drug overdose alert in Chilliwack

Alert comes after increase in overdoses associated with ‘greeny-blue/turquoise down substance’

A free online series on advance care planning is being hosted by two Abbotsford organizations on Jan. 27 and Feb. 3 and 10. (Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash)
Online workshop series addresses ‘advance care planning’

Three sessions hosted by Abbotsford Hospice Society and Association for Healthy Aging

ds
Mission potbellied-pig sanctuary mourns death of beloved old hog named Roscoe

14-year-old, 800-pound pig was ‘quite a character,’ said owner Janice Gillett

A screenshot from a local Instagram account video. The account appeared to be frequented by Mission students, and showed violent videos of students assaulting and bullying other students.
Parents, former students describe ‘culture of bullying’ in Mission schools

Nearly two dozen voices come forward speaking of abuse haunting the hallways

Vancouver/Fraser Valley CoSA holds a webinar on Jan. 26 titled Staying Safe Online.
‘Staying Safe Online’ is subject of Fraser Valley webinar

Session on Tuesday, Jan. 26 is hosted by non-profit Circles of Support and Accountability

Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 is International Lego Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 24 to 30

Lego Day, Talk Like a Grizzled Prospector Day and Puzzle Day are all coming up this week

BC Coroners Service is currently investigating a death at Canoe Cove Marina and Boatyard in North Saanich. (Black Press Media File)
Drowning death in North Saanich likely B.C.’s first in for 2021

Investigation into suspected drowning Monday night continues

Kimberly Proctor, 18, was murdered in 2010. Her family has spent many of the years since pushing for a law in her honour, that they say would help to prevent similar tragedies. (Courtesy of Jo-Anne Landolt)
Proposed law honouring murdered B.C. teen at a standstill, lacks government support

Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions has concerns with involuntary detainment portion of act

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a daily briefing in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
31 cases of COVID-19 variants detected in Canada: Health officials

Dr. Theresa Tam made announces 13 more variant COVID-19 cases in Canada

Daily COVID-19 cases reported to each B.C. health region, to Jan. 20, 2021. Island Health in blue, Northern Health green, Interior Health orange, Vancouver Coastal in red and Fraser Health in purple. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate stays stable with 508 cases Friday

Vaccine delivered to more than 110,000 high-risk people

The District of Saanich’s communications team decided to take part in a viral trend on Thursday and photoshopped U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders into a staff meeting photo. (District of Saanich/Twitter)
Bernie Sanders makes guest appearance municipal staff meeting in B.C.

Vancouver Island firefighters jump on viral trend of photoshopped U.S. senator

School District 57 headquarters in Prince George. (Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)
Prince George school district settles with sexual abuse victim

Terms were part of an out-of-court settlement reached with Michael Bruneau, nearly four years after he filed a lawsuit

Surrey provincial court. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
New COVID-19 protocols set for provincial courthouses

The new rules were issued on Jan. 21, and took effect immediately

Police in Vancouver looking for male suspect who allegedly spat and attacked a store manager for not wearing a mask, at 7-Eleven near Alma Street and West 10th Avenue just before noon on Dec. 17, 2020. (Vancouver police handout)
VIDEO: Man spits on 7-Eleven manager over mask rule, sparking Vancouver police probe

‘Unfortunately, the store manager sustained a cut to his head during the assault’

Most Read