The other day, my friend James stopped in at the gas station he frequents. He overheard another customer say, “I can’t stand Chinese people. I hate this foreign virus.”

“What?!” James said.

The customer responded, “Why do you think we’re in this mess? We have this Coronavirus because of them.”

James slowed down the conversation and said, “I have two siblings who were adopted from China, and I don’t have a single problem. We’re safe.”

The customer quickly dialed back and said, “No, no, no. I have a problem with the Chinese government, not the people.” Then the customer turned and left.

It hurts when he hears that term. James certainly knows Chinese people are not the cause of Covid-19.

During a time of fear and uncertainty such as this, it’s important to understand how easy it is to get caught up in assumptions, why that happens and what we can do about it.

The way we talk about disease matters, whether it’s a human disease or the types of dis-ease that make organizations sick, and impacts people’s lives and interactions. Describing Covid-19 as a “foreign virus” is not only unhelpful, it’s dangerous.

Why stereotypes are dangerous

Describing Covid-19 as a “foreign virus” is problematic. Ho-Fung Hung, Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University explained that the virus itself doesn’t know ethnic boundaries, so if you’re stuck with this perception that you only need to keep a distance from certain groups of people, you miss the more important steps that need to be taken: maintain physical distance from people outside your household. People can inadvertently lower their guard; they might think they won’t come across someone from Asia, so they’re fine.(1) And when people are worried about being discriminated against, they might feel discouraged from getting the medical care they need. If immigrants are afraid to get tested, that puts the community at large in danger too.

Not only is there the obvious physical danger to the community at large, there is also potential harm to our ability to connect with friends, clients and coworkers. When a person calls this disease the “Chinese flu” or a “foreign virus,” they put a face to the blame, and that can negatively influence a person’s perception and behavior, thus inadvertently alienating a whole group of people. Not only is that not healthy in, it’s destructive to personal and professional relationships.

This isn’t new

At, reporter Catherine Shoichet points out that from the Black Plague to SARS, racism and xenophobia were also in the picture. Here’s what scholars told her about some of these events:

  • “In 14th century Italy, Jewish populations were accused of deliberately poisoning the wells and causing the Black Death. We know examples of this from many places in Europe,” said Nükhet Varlik, associate professor of history at Rutgers University. As rumors spread, Jewish people were killed, buried alive and burned at the stake, he said.(1)
  • “The 1832 cholera outbreak in New York City was very largely blamed on Irish Catholic immigrants,” said Alan Kraut, professor of history at American University.(1)
  • “In 1876, during an outbreak of smallpox in San Francisco, a population of 30,000 Chinese living there became medical scapegoats. Chinatown was blamed as a ‘laboratory of infection,’ and quarantined amidst renewed calls to halt immigration. Things got to the point where there were forced vaccinations of people in the Chinatown community with a vaccine that had not been fully tested,” said Doug Chan, president of the Chinese Historical Society of America and Marie Myung-Ok Lee, writer-in-residence at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. The Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted in 1882.(1)

Why humans fall into this trap

Humans are a social species that has evolved to live in big groups but, until recently in human history, had no understanding of specific causes of disease or the way they’re transmitted. So, to minimize the spread of disease, humans ignorantly defaulted to a kind of instinctive social distancing. Its expression was crude, our ancestors operating on a ‘better safe than sorry’ logic.(2) But that binary thinking about who’s safe and who’s not safe sometimes gets mapped against preexisting social prejudices. So, minority groups often become scapegoats during public health emergencies (3)

We might think that we’re unbiased, impartial and fair and so wouldn’t fall into this trap. But we all succumb to this bias, having evolved to be this way. Due to some deeply evolved responses to disease and fears of contagion, we have a “blindspot” we’re often unaware of, which is influencing our behavior toward people.

In a previous blog, “What’s in Your Blindspot?” I explained that an assumption is an idea that we accept as true about a person or group of people without proof. A hidden assumption (or unconscious bias) is an inherent “blind spot” in our thinking that reduces accuracy and can ultimately result in an inaccurate, and often irrational, conclusion – like thinking Asian people cause Covid-19.

In this pandemic, a particular kind of bias is prevalent: in-group bias. It means the unfair favoring of someone from one’s own group (and denigration of those outside it). From an evolutionary perspective, the bias is about gaining an advantage over other social groups, particularly with respect to protecting and promoting people similar to oneself.

In stressful times like this pandemic, even within their own in-group, people value conformity over eccentricity. The pattern is similar when there is a crisis in your business, and, for example, when sales for the quarter plummet. Understanding this, we tend to see value in being morally vigilant in a crisis. Studies have shown that when we fear outbreak, we tend to be more judgmental when perceiving a breach of loyalty, break from the norm or failure to respect authority.(2)

What a leader can do

Spending a great deal of time in isolation whether from Covid-19 or in the silo of your department at work, people can get caught up in their own small world and forget that other people have different perspectives and experiences. When we notice a bias in ourselves or others we can “STOP” – discover there’s much more to know about a person, situation or organization than we initially thought. We can:

  • S – Slow down;
  • T – Take 3 deep breaths;
  • O – Observe our reaction and the feelings of others, check to see that you’re safe; and if everything is cool…
  • P – Proceed with curiosity and wonder

A solution in solidarity

“What prompted you to speak up?” I asked James. He explained that he felt hurt when he heard the customer blame Chinese people. But he slowed down, acknowledged his own feelings and recognized that the other guy was probably afraid too. So he offered a different perspective and hoped it would reassure him.

James told me he wonders if he’s just being self-righteous. But as we discussed it more, he realized that what he really wants is to be part of a society where everyone feels like they belong, where even his Chinese brother and sister have voices that are honored as much as his own.

Cultural intelligence helps us to slow down, acknowledge our own fear and take steps to stay safe, as well as empathize and recognize no one person is to blame for whatever we’re experiencing. This kind of compassion heals and enhances the health of our daily interactions as well as our on-going relationships within our homes and workplaces.                   -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Shoichet, C. (March 17, 2020). “Racism and xenophobia are on the rise as the coronavirus spreads.”
  2. Robson, D. (April 1, 2020) “The fear of coronavirus is changing our psychology.” BBC Future.
  3. Mar 31, 2020 “Coronavirus revives racist stereotypes against Chinese people and other minorities,” The Christian Science Monitor.
  4. Understanding unconscious bias: The Royal Society.
  5. Dwyer, C. (Sept 7, 2018) “12 common biases that affect how we make everyday decisions.” Psychology Today.