By Professor Binna Kandola
Co-founder and senior partner, Pearn Kandola
“COLUMBUS sailed for India, / Found Salvador instead, / He shook hands with some Indians and soon they all were dead, / They got TB and typhoid and athlete’s foot, / Diphtheria and the flu, / Excuse me, great nations coming through.”
Randy Newman’s caustic lyrics to his song The Great Nations of Europe shows the devastation that can be caused by pathogens being introduced into a culture that has no resistance to them.
Evolutionary psychologists have long recognised that people in groups try to avoid diseases. When our ancestors came across tribes that they were not familiar with, they tended to treat them with suspicion. In some respects, we carry those tendencies within us even today, and they are particularly noticeable when a public health risk is posed, such as is occurring at the moment with the Corona virus.
In circumstances such as these, there is a tendency to become hyper-vigilant and very sensitive to cues in the environment which may signal the possibility of being exposed to the virus.
However, the focus also tends to be on people who are different from the majority. Ethnic differences can be highlighted, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, and minorities can find themselves at the centre of unwelcome attention. There have been reports of people of Asian origin (although not necessarily from Asia) who have been verbally and physically attacked, not because they necessarily carry the virus but because people feel threatened by their presence.
In some cases, this reaction is based on genuine anxiety of contracting the virus. For others, it may just be an excuse to display their racist attitudes towards a minority group. In either case, the behaviour needs to be acknowledged and discouraged.
While the focus on race is understandable, the fear of contracting an illness isn’t limited to minority ethnic outgroups. Anyone who is different from the majority in some way is vulnerable to being treated with suspicion and possibly shunned. It wouldn’t surprise me to find older workers being subjected to assumptions about them being “carriers,” with so much media attention on older people being susceptible to the virus.
False positives occur when we believe that someone has a disease when they do not, which can, of course, cause problems for the stigmatised group.
However, false negatives can also cause problems for the people making the assumptions, who might think that someone doesn’t have the virus when, in fact, they do.
So, it isn’t just ethnic groups who are impacted by the stereotypes associated with the disease, but other outgroups are susceptible as well. And assumptions that some anxious people make about who may or may not have the virus could make them more vulnerable to overlooking genuine cases of the disease.