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

  • Feb. 4, 2020 12:00 a.m.

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

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