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

Northern Health ready for COVID-19 surge

Health authority confident with inventory of ventilators

How to cope with your mental health during a global pandemic

Becca Shears, clinical counsellor in Vanderhoof speaks about ways to deal with stress and anxiety during this time.

MP for Cariboo-Prince George writes a letter to residents amidst COVID-19

‘Partisan politics have no place in a pandemic,’ writes MP Todd Doherty

‘An extra $220 every 90 days’: B.C. patients pay more dispensing fees due to prescription limits

Kelowna woman says it’s outrageous to charge for refills every 30 days

Sinclar Group curtailing all sawmill operations temporarily

Nechako Lumber, Apollo Forest Products and Lakeland Mills to be curtailed for three weeks starting April 5.

‘Hold our line’: 29 new cases of COVID-19 announced in B.C.

Saturday’s number of new cases marks the lowest in weeks.

Two inmates found positive for COVID-19 at federal prison in B.C.; other tests pending

15 staff self-isolating waiting results, refusal to work notice sent, says correctional officer

Critic, workers’ group ‘disappointed’ Trudeau chose Amazon to distribute PPE

Amazon Canada said in an email to The Canadian Press that it is working with Canada Post, Purolator

Full World COVID-19 update: National Guard collect ventilators in New York; Spain, Italy improve

Comprehensive coronavirus update with news from around the world.

Two people fined after B.C. police spot online ads re-selling 5,000 surgical, N95 masks

Police confiscated the masks, being sold at inflated prices, and now working with Fraser Health

Sex workers face new risks during COVID-19 pandemic

‘Desperation has kicked in’ for vulnerable, undocumented workers unable to access help

Unclear if Cowichan couple refusing to self-isolate will face penalty

No fines or charges have been laid to date, including Cowichan couple who won’t self isolate

COVID-19: Postponed surgeries will be done, B.C. health minister says

Contract with private surgical clinic to help clear backlog

Most Read