Reflections on COVID-19 and Xenophobia

By Dr. Susan B. Wilson, Vice Chancellor, Division of Diversity and Inclusion

The worldwide Pandemic of the COVID-19 virus has created widespread economic, psychological and educational impacts.  From the loss of loved ones, to job losses, educational interruption, and a plunging stock market, the pandemic has had many unfortunate and tragic consequences. Psychologically, people feel a profound loss of control that triggers fear, anxiety and anger. These emotions often cause people to scapegoat and blame others in an irrational way. And who better to blame? The person who is the “other”, who is different from us, is often easiest to blame. That’s where xenophobia comes into the picture.

Xenophobia, according to Merriam – Webster is “the fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or anything that is strange and foreign.” The announcement that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China set off a rash of incidents targeting Asian people.  Examples include the use of “corona” as a racial slur, the avoidance of Asian restaurants, and racial attacks on Asians. As the pandemic spread across the globe, other groups were targeted based on their perceived threat of carrying COVID-19.  Moreover, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, commented recently that coronavirus “is shining a bright light” on health disparities in communities of color.

Healthy fear can keep us safe and free from danger. Yet throughout history, irrational fears precipitated the Salem witch hunt, the herding of Asians into internment camps, and lynching. Higher education—as a beacon of enlightenment—must set the standard for rational and informed thought. Critical thinking and analysis can be powerful antidotes to fear, loathing and discrimination.

In this time of crisis, we must challenge ourselves to unite and not separate.  We must draw on our humanity to fight fear and hate with good deeds and a swift response. Although difficult, drawing upon our reservoir of understanding, hope and optimism is more important now than ever. In the words of Nelson Mandela “People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”