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

Man accused in Salmon Arm 7-Eleven fire sentenced for bail breach

Sentencing for arson to take place later this month in BC Supreme Court

COVID-19: Salmon Arm city hall, law courts open gradually as restrictions ease

City staff to remain behind glass, court registry expected to open doors July 13

Speedboat driver sentenced in fatal Shuswap houseboat collision granted day parole

Leon Reinbrecht began serving a three-year sentence in a federal prison in January 2019

New charging station part of South Shuswap Transportation Society roadmap

Director’s Notes by CSRD Electoral Area E Director Paul Demenok

Sicamous to receive $6 million for construction of Shuswap Healing Centre

Federal/provincial infrastructure funding also announced for Chase pedestrian bridge

84-year-old Okanagan resident finishes 12,000-piece puzzle

Willie Tribiger started the puzzle in 2013, completing it in six and a half years

Aces aplenty at Okanagan golf course

Vernon Golf and Country Club has 14 recorded holes-in-one since April 30

Fraser Valley woman complains of violent RCMP takedown during wellness check

Mounties respond that she was not co-operating during Mental Health Act apprehension

B.C. sees 12 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths

Three outbreaks exist in health-care settings

Lost dog swims Columbia River multiple times searching for home

The dog was missing from his Castlegar home for three days.

Booze on beach extended through summer in Penticton

Pilot project will stay in place until Oct. 15

Sad ending in case of missing Okanagan senior

Body of Vernon man Wayne Orser found floating in Okanagan Lake Tuesday, July 7

COVID-19: B.C. promotes video-activated services card

Mobile app allows easier video identity verification

ICBC to resume road tests in July with priority for rebookings, health-care workers

Tests have been on hold for four months due to COVID-19

Most Read