‘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’
The caustic lyrics of Randy Newman’s 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. Despite the Aztecs in the 16th century possessing numerical superiority, this proved no defence against the smallpox virus the Spaniards brought with them to their continent. As the Aztecs had no exposure to the virus, they had no defences against it either, which meant their population was devastated.
Evolutionary psychologists have long recognised the impact of people in groups trying to avoid diseases. When our long-distant ancestors came across tribes they were unfamiliar with, they tended to treat them with suspicion and wariness. 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 that occurring at the moment with coronavirus.
In circumstances such as these, there is a tendency to become hyper-vigilant and highly sensitive to cues in the environment that may signal risk of exposure to the virus. These cues will include aspects of the physical location, such as cleanliness of work surfaces, for example.
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 this or not, and minorities can find themselves the focus of unwelcome attention. There have been reports of people of Asian origin (although not necessarily from Asia) verbally and physically attacked – not because they necessarily carry the virus, but because people feel threatened by their very presence. In some cases, this reaction is based on genuine anxiety about contracting the virus. In others, it may just be an excuse for racism towards a particular minority group. Either way, the behaviour needs to be acknowledged and tackled.
While the focus on race is understandable, the fear of contracting an illness isn’t limited to minority ethnic ‘out groups’ – anyone who is different from the majority in some way is vulnerable to being treated with suspicion and possibly shunned. The cues that can trigger this anxiety might include physical disability, obesity, nationality and age. In each of these cases, people can find themselves being stereotyped and potentially ostracised. It wouldn’t surprise me if older workers were subjected to banter and assumptions about them as ‘carriers’, given so much media attention has focused on older people being susceptible to illnesses associated with the virus.
The danger of making assumptions like these isn’t restricted to out groups, though. There are also dangers posed to the people making the assumptions in the first place. In particular, because they are associating the disease with specific groups of people, they may be prone to making mistakes in their assessments. False positives occur when we believe 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.
It is important to make clear that it isn’t just ethnic groups affected by stereotypes associated with the disease – other out groups are susceptible as well. Furthermore, the assumptions that some anxious people make about who may or may not have the disease could, ironically, make them more vulnerable to overlooking genuine cases of the virus.
Binna Kandola is co-founder and senior partner at Pearn Kandola