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How a pandemic could exacerbate racism, xenophobia

A new study suggests people tend to avoid people from outside groups

Black Lives Matter protesters march through Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 9, 2016.
Black Lives Matter protesters march through Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 9, 2016.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A new study explores whether people tend to be more racist or xenophobic during pandemics since people tend to turn to their own communities in times of strife.

What the study says

The new paper — published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B — suggests that viruses and pandemics lead humans and animals tohunker down with immediate family and peer groups to avoid outsiders as much as possible.”

  • This raises the question about whether racism and xenophobia spread.

Jessica Stephenson, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh Department of Biological Sciences, said in a release that this often makes people more bigoted:

  • “During epidemics, humans tend to become overly sensitive, so any sort of physical abnormality that somebody has suddenly becomes a potential indicator of infection. We become much more bigoted, we pay way more attention to things that differentiate people from what we perceive as our own phenotype. People who look different from us and sound different from us, which, of course, leads to a lot more xenophobia.”

How the study sought an answer

The study looked at how black garden ants responded to a fungus. The ants gathered together in small social groups to help stop the spread.

  • Humans do the same thing, coming together in small groups.

But humans tend to have “hypervigilant and particularly error prone” behaviors that lead to discrimination.

  • “We shouldn’t discriminate against different groups in our social distancing, or in our efforts to work together to beat the virus,” Stepenson said “But I think our natural, evolved tendencies would be to associate only within our ingroups. We have to fight that natural antipathy towards people who differ from ourselves, and not shut down.”