Racism and stigma during COVID-19 may persist after the virus is controlled, says Dr. Michael Wilkes

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Coronavirus-related stigma can be seen in Singapore, India, Tunisia, and the U.S., explains Dr. Michael Wilkes. Photo credit: NurseTogether.com/(CC BY 2.0).

Hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked this year, partly due to fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 since it first surfaced in China. The paranoia surrounding the virus has also contributed to the ostracization of people of color and people with lower incomes.  

On today’s Daily Dose, Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health and UC Davis, says that this type of scapegoating is happening worldwide, and might be impeding the fight against COVID-19.  

“You don't have to go back in history very far to see that those with scary diseases have a long history of being ostracized, shamed, [and] blamed,” he says. “Look at those who had leprosy a generation ago and polio, and how we treated people with HIV. I think in many cases, this stigma can hurt as much as the actual disease.”

Wilkes says COVID-19 stigmatization can be seen in Singapore, where migrants are confined to their homes to prevent potential infection, and India, where officials are blaming Muslims for spreading the virus. Some Islamic group members are facing mob attacks in India

Wilkes says one epidemiologist in Tunisia told him that stigma exists around testing, and people there are refusing to get tested.

“The feeling in Tunisia is that those who test positive are considered dirty and unhygienic, and that they're the ones who are infecting others. They blame the poor, who he [the epidemiologist] describes lives in what he called ghettos.”

Wilkes says the Tunisian doctor pointed out that it wasn’t actually people in poverty who were traveling and catching COVID-19. 

In the U.S., Wilkes says one group is being singled out too: “Our president has also been fueling the flame by blaming the Chinese, going so far as to call this a Chinese virus.”

The roots of stigma

Some stigmatization can be attributed to human nature, Wilkes says. 

“Human nature and evolution have driven us to protect ourselves and our relatives. Those that survive can ensure the future of the species.”

People have a tendency to label an outside group as bad or dirty, he says, and that leads to a separation of groups. It creates an us-or-them mentality, which helps reduce fear by shifting the blame to another group. 

“This ‘them’ is usually an outside group that's brought something bad into the community. ... When times get tough and people get scared, they look for these scapegoats.”

Long-term harm of COVID-19 stigma

Wilkes says that even when the virus is controlled, the stigma will still persist and that “it has the risk of being passed on just like a virus.”

Fact-based education will become critical, plus transparency surrounding who’s infected. When public figures such as Tom Hanks, Boris Johnson and Rand Paul got sick, Wilkes says it sent a message that “normal, good people get the disease.”

Moving forward, he hopes that prominent people of color continue to come forward and government officials emphasize that the novel coronavirus impacts all people. 

“Our leaders need to take some effort to talk about how this is impacting everyone without blaming any particular group, and we all need to remember that we are fighting a virus. We're not fighting people. The plague of communal disharmony and bias is going to be hard to kill once this is all over, and we're gonna need to work together.”




Chery Glaser