On March 18th, 2020, with hundreds of thousands already infected with the novel coronavirus, President Trump released this tweet: “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the “borders” from China - against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!”
The President’s tweet is evidence that the United States is facing a double public health crisis: COVID-19 and xenophobia. Sweeping the globe, COVID-19 has tested every aspect of society: how well our media can gather information and report it accurately, how quickly our places of employment and education can evacuate, and how effective our healthcare systems can treat the sick and produce vaccines. One factor that has received less attention from the media, though equally important, is how COVID has tested the way that people treat each other during times of incredible stress.
President Trump has received major backlash from the Chinese American community for continually referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus,” or more recently, “Kung Flu,” as he seeks to blame the virus on China. But while the President tweets, “It’s not racist at all,” anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in the US. According to a Vox article published in February, San Francisco researchers discovered that there were over 1,000 cases of xenophobia targeted at Chinese Americans. These same statistics are being reflected all over the country. In June, Time released a collection of profiles showcasing individuals’ prejudice against Asian Americans due to COVID-19. From “Next time, don’t bring your diseases back from your country,” to “All of you should die, and all of you have the Chinese virus,” American display of xenophobia is rampant and increasingly concerning.
Sadly, the act of blaming a pandemic on minority groups is not a new phenomenon. In 2009, with the spread of the H1N1 strain of the flu—known more colloquially as swine flu—Latinx members of US society rapidly became scapegoats for the virus’ spread. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans especially bore the brunt of the stigma, as this form of influenza was first found in Mexican pig farms. Latinx individuals around the world were subject to scrutiny, which in some cases worsened their own health outcomes. In the US, several talk show hosts and media outlets negatively portrayed Mexican-Americans and even began to call the influenza the “Fajita Flu.”
“Chinese Virus” and “Fajita Flu” both represent instances of cue convergence. According to a study from BMC Public Health, this phenomenon occurs when the extensive fears associated with a rampant pandemic quickly become associated with a desire to assign blame and find a cause of the outbreak. Connections made in the human brain are strengthened when both this feeling of fear and this urge to find a cause begin to act together. When a cue is given—such as hearing names like “Chinese Virus” or “Fajita Flu” in the news—it can bring up underlying fears stored in long term memory. This can include the fear of those who look and act differently, reinforcing the idea that fear, ignorance, and prejudice go hand in hand. When this process is repeatedly incited by news outlets, social media, or the President himself, it becomes associative priming.
Knowing the scientific way that principles can be associated through cue convergence, we all have a responsibility to be cautious with their language. In our personal lives we must make a conscious effort to not only denounce xenophobic language, but also to have conversations about structural racism. Understanding the scientific processes that can play a role in cementing xenophobic ideals is just the start. To prevent the next minority group from being targeted we must encourage conversations that talk about the harm of xenophobia in our daily lives.
The change in language can start on an individual level, but must also be translated to media outlets and the public sphere at large. Researchers of the Chinese National Health Commission study drew a significant conclusion about the impact of media on pandemics: “the relationship between mass media and the disease spread is complex and mutual.” In other words, if there are media reports on COVID-19, people are more likely to wash their hands, practice social distancing, and take part in other preventative measures which will lower rates of infection. But on the other hand, the prevalence and severity of COVID-19 is what will cause media outlets to cover it. This intertwined relationship re-emphasizes the media's influence on the rates of infection and shows how the media is important in educating the public about the pandemic and methods of prevention. With this direct impact that the media has in the rates of the outbreak, it also has significant influence in public attitudes to a pandemic.
An important principle that is relevant in the conversation around stigma is the idea of “framing” a story, as highlighted by the BMC Public Health Study. Even in reporting science and stating statistics about illness rates, the way information travels from source to media outlet to the public is critical in perception and public opinion. The way that news is framed and the background information that is given as supporting evidence is a prime factor promoting associative priming. While the responsibility does not fall completely on media outlets, they do have a special ability to combat stigma in society.
The media has extensive power. During COVID-19 specifically, journalism and scientific reporting have been used as an educational tool that reaches citizens around the world. As we continue to use news outlets to teach and social media to inform, we will be faced with tough questions. If our leaders use inflammatory language, how do we cover it without promoting the behavior? How can journalists stop implicit bias from coming through in reporting? When faced with fear, how can we ensure that we continue to fight injustice? How can we have conversations about structural racism and xenophobia with our loved ones? These questions have no easy answers, but rather give us an opportunity to reflect how we interpret what we hear, how that influences what we say, and why this should compel us to act.
NEHA MUKHERJEE ‘22 spends lots of time on Medical Twitter