From COVID-19 to Ebola, naming diseases after locations breeds fear and hate, says UB expert

News and social media play a large role in labeling “others” as “infected,” leading to closed borders and tightened immigration policies

Release Date: July 17, 2020

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Portrait of Tiffany Karalis Noel.
“In many countries, the stigma of an infectious disease can be worse than the disease itself, as well as play a significant role in social and institutional responses. ”
Tiffany Karalis Noel, clinical assistant professor of learning and instruction in the UB Graduate School of Education

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The common practice of naming infectious diseases after specific people or places perpetuates xenophobia around the globe, says Tiffany Karalis Noel, a University at Buffalo expert on sociocultural inequity.

References to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” or “China virus” have contributed to thousands of incidences of harassment and assault against people of Asian descent across the world. The problem is exacerbated, she says, by sensationalist media reports and the rise of social media.

“This fear of unknown diseases is a part of human nature, especially when they are deadly and highly infectious,” says Karalis Noel, PhD, clinical assistant professor of learning and instruction in the UB Graduate School of Education.

“Stigmatization of COVID-19, led by some politicians, such as Donald Trump, might have reinforced such discrimination and social exclusion,” she says. “However, it is paramount to recognize the discriminatory behaviors that accompany fear, as they damage not only the sociocultural fabric in the long run, but they also compromise present efforts to contain the disease.”

Karalis Noel calls on social scientists and education professionals to communicate accurate, socially-appropriate information with students and surrounding communities. She also stresses the importance of media monitoring in pandemic planning to help mitigate the spread of misinformation and establish trust with marginalized populations.

Finding a scapegoat

In a commentary published on July 7 in Social Sciences & Humanities Open, Karalis Noel explores the connection between xenophobia — the fear and hatred of foreigners or strangers — and global pandemics throughout history.

In pandemics caused by infectious disease, some media commentators and personalities enter into a blame game, labeling “others” as the scapegoat for the outbreak. Fault typically falls on the people most closely tied to the disease’s name, regardless of scientific evidence, she says.

The 1918 flu pandemic is commonly referred to as the Spanish flu, even though the outbreak didn’t begin in Spain. Journalists in Spain, a neutral country during World War I, were the first to widely cover the pandemic while other nations censored the news to avoid appearing vulnerable to enemies.

The Ebola virus received its name from the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The first outbreak occurred in a village near the river.

The panic caused by media coverage that labels a group of people as ‘infected’ can result in closed borders, tightened immigration policies and a rise in hate crimes, Karalis Noel says. Social media is a new mode of communication — one not present during previous pandemics — that allows xenophobic messages to rapidly spread.

“In many countries, the stigma of an infectious disease can be worse than the disease itself, as well as play a significant role in social and institutional responses,” she says.

“Within the United States, for example, much of the media’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been a proliferation of sensationalized and misinformed headlines. Hot-button phrases such as ‘Wuhan virus’ and ‘China virus’ promote fear and panic, which propel prejudice, xenophobia and discrimination.”

Within the first two weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, people of Asian descent experienced more than 1,100 reported incidences of verbal harassment, shunning and physical assault, according to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council’s Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate project.

Data also revealed that Asian American and Pacific Islander women were harassed at twice the rate of men, and 6% of the incidents involved children. Many people reported being laid off without cause or rejected from rental housing.

“News headlines can have a powerful effect on the attitudes that people adopt,” says Karalis Noel. “If we wish to combat and overcome xenophobia, we must examine and amend the systems that produce and constrain it.”

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