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Unmasking Fear and Racism in the Age of COVID-19

How can we avoid being racists and being victims of our cognitive biases in the midst of this viral threat? Psychologist ANGELA ARRIOLA YU tries to answer this.  

I n mid-January, Binondo Heritage Group, the Facebook group I co-founded erupted with lively posts and comments about masks. The attention was so pervasive it muted interest in the upcoming lunar new year, a major celebration in the Chinese culture.

Masks first became a hot topic in the aftermath of the ashfall from Taal volcano, which began sometime in early January. Masks once again took center stage a week later. This time, they were in demand for another reason: disease. A new, deadly virus named ‘COVID-19’ slowly but quickly spread all over the world, turning the virus’ epicenter–Wuhan, China– into a household name almost overnight.

With the destruction of Taal far from over, news that drugstore supplies of masks were bought out in the Philippines and shipped to China drew flak from locals worried that a mask shortage would occur in the wake of an impending volcanic eruption.

In an effort to show goodwill, Chinese Filipinos handed out masks to Filipinos in the streets of Chinatown. However, what predominates is anger and fear about an unknown disease, and these emotions have now extended to those who come from COVID-19’s country of origin–the Chinese.

Somehow, the epidemic has become a mask as well, allowing sinophobia and ethnocentrism to manifest itself, for the Chinese and Filipinos in the Philippines, and for Asians and other ethnicities too. 

X enophobia is not new to the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines. There were several instances of massacres and other efforts to marginalize the Chinese migrants during the Spanish and  American colonial rule. Later on, these anti-Chinese sentiments also led to “nationalistic” legislature, after the Philippines became an independent nation. In the 1990s, a spate of criminal acts involving ethnic Chinese perpetrators identified to be new migrants led to an effort to differentiate the locally assimilated ethnic Chinese with the formation of a new subgroup label, Chinoy/Tsinoy.

Apparently, the move to shield the more assimilated subgroup from mainstream discrimination helped raise awareness on the heterogeneity or variety in the ethnic minority group. Many Filipinos now know that Chinoys (also often called Filipino-Chinese or Fil-Chi) most likely could speak English and/or Pilipino, and are likely to have been born in the Philippines, too.

But have intergroup relationships really improved?  More recent events such as the West Philippine Sea conflict, the POGO issue and now the spread of COVID-19 have caused a lot of backlash toward China and the Chinese.

The conflict is not only impacting intergroup relations. Even among the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines, the brickbats were aplenty, defining the demarcations in group identity and varying interests–political, generational, social class, etc.  Hurtful accusations ranged from political treason, the absence of cultural roots or lack of familial guidance. Jose Rizal’s quote about not being connected to one’s cultural roots gained popularity, so did the observation of Rizal being a traitor to his Chinese roots.

People do not usually differentiate between an ethnic Chinese who bears a Chinese  passport from one that does not. It is also difficult to differentiate a Chinese-Filipino  from a Chinese person based on physical features. Even within the social group, the absence of this has shown us that the racial divide is not totally closed, and more effort is necessary to foster a better understanding between the ethnic Chinese and the Filipinos.

W hy is it so difficult to eradicate racism, prejudice and discrimination?

Neuroscience research on how the brain reacts to novel and potentially threatening situations could shed some light as to why people are easily triggered to react with fear and strong negative emotions in the face of the unknown.

One theory about how our brain makes sense of reality and ensures our survival is to classify situations and encounters either as usual or different. The amygdala in the limbic system of the brain gets activated and is responsible for the emotions and subsequent fight-or-flight responses, when exposed to threatening or uncomfortable situations, including racially-fired ones. This fast under-the-radar processing that happens in the amygdala was seen as a necessary part of the man’s evolutionary survival ability as it allows for the organism to respond quickly and automatically to environmental threats. Think of the caveman facing a killer cobra or a hungry bear.

However, because the human body evolves slowly, these primitive fight-or-flight reactions may be inappropriate to the challenges in today’s world wherein threats may be new diseases and not natural forces.

The reactions, in response to stress and imbedded emotion-laden mental scripts today, are often unprocessed by the more logical thinking side of our brain. In the USA for instance, a viral case of two black men being racially profiled while waiting to meet a white business partner in a Starbucks store drew flak after the store employees quickly called the cops on them for no apparent reason other than the color of their skin. This led to Starbucks instituting cognitive bias training for all its employees right after. 

So, strangers and unfamiliar people, or people historically connected to negative or fearful stereotypes will likely trigger strong emotional and “fight” reactions when one is faced with stressful and potentially life-threatening situations like a fast-spreading novel virus causing an epidemic. Add to that, there’s social media, connecting the globe and circulating alarming and oftentimes unreliable COVID-19 situationers. Combine that with a history of prejudice and discrimination of the ethnic Chinese, and many other more recent, negatively-charged news and situations with China and ethnic Chinese people, and we have all the necessary ingredients for a lively agitable case for racial prejudice to rear its ugly head.

Being separated not by land borders but by a wide sea from the epicenter of the contagion, the Philippines could have been protected from the spreading COVID-19 virus. However, political and racial conflicts could have also muddled what should have been a global health issue and this contributed to the delays in the decision-making. The fear of being called out for racism or political slants appears to have come into play, as the health secretary was quoted saying there’s no need to deny entry to visitors from mainland China amid the 2019-nCoV threat. Emotions like fear could hold people back from making the best decision, and in high threat situations, unfettered emotions could further confound the already tenuous position.

That was not the only situation where fear was seen. There were also reports of people taking the COVID-19 infection against ethnic Chinese and other Asians, actions ranged from contact avoidance to outright racial slurring. Poor hygienic practices of certain individuals such as spitting in public were called out, and stereotyped to a race provided avenues for fear to transform into verbalized bigotry. The supposed source of COVID-19 arising from “uncivilized” bat soup cuisine made the rounds early and lasted a long time, despite officials from various legitimate organizations clarifying it as fake news. Here emotions become triggers for unwarranted and inappropriate behaviors.

Defensive reactions and ethnocentric counterattacks from people belonging to the ethnic group did not help any. In the same manner as racist rants, reposts and shares of emotion-laden rebuttals to racist posts served no purpose other than to incite more anger and hatred among community members already smarting from the denigration and ethnic bashing. And oftentimes, this could lead to more aggressive behaviors between people.

N o one is immune to cognitive biases, not even highly intelligent people. This is according to a study done by Stanovich, West and Toplack. So, how could the average person avoid becoming a racist and a victim of their own cognitive biases? Below are tips that could help:

1.) Soothe the emotions. Emotions are vital to our survival and personal growth if properly managed. People involved could avoid incendiary racial strife by holding back the fear and maintaining a calm disposition. While it’s true that there are a lot of unknowns surrounding COVID-19, reacting emotionally deters us from thinking things through and making better decisions.

2.) Step back and think. Calm down and allow the System 2 thinking process to happen. Being more self-aware, identifying personal triggers (people, things and situations that could cause an emotional reaction) and consciously focusing on problem-solving than allowing the emotions to rule actions. This is what Kahneman and Tversky call the System 2 thinking. Cultivating this as a habit will impact on your problem-solving skills.

3.) Screen Information. Critical thinking and objectivity are valuable tools to help us sift through the immense amount of information we deal with every day. We should always look for credible information sources. However, even the most credible sources may fall victim to misinformation or fake news. The best way to ensure we are consuming the correct information is to always doubt, and seek further confirmation from other sources.

4.) Stop disinformation. Social media attention and likes are reinforcing, and oftentimes, it is the unusual or novel that brings shock, likes and shares. Unfortunately, a lot of these are unreliable or fake news. Helping spread this kind of information on social media is like an infected person helping spread COVID-19 by walking around, coughing on people and shaking their hands too. Bad. Think before you click “like” or “share”. 

5.) Focus on Solutions. The upcoming Lenten season brings with it the lesson on Christian values: Love the sinner, hate the sin. Adapting it to the COVID-19 scourge, we must encourage everyone to “love the person (we are all human beings,) hate the virus”. Most medical practitioners agree that prevention at this point is the best action, and this includes hygiene practices and boosting our own immune system.

6.) Self-Regulate for Common Good. While we all have personal and business interests we want to promote, not all of these are aligned with or contribute to the welfare of the public. The Chinese value of self-regulation fits well into this. When we self-monitor, we consciously think of the consequences of our actions, manage our behaviors to ensure that we impact others positively. We then are able to cultivate better, and more trusting relationships in the long run. Self-regulation is one aspect of Emotional Quotient or EQ.

I n a crisis situation, people tend to think in a smaller box, working in silos, and look at situations with a shorter-term perspective. Consciously thinking about longer-term implications more carefully may help us realize the risks and opportunities better.  We all are potential victims of the COVID-19. If we do not do our share through our hygiene habits and abide by instituted rules, we also are part of the problem.  For example, the COVID-19 spread in South Korea was traced to a 61-year old woman who refused to get tested when she exhibited symptoms, and even went around with her regular activities. Today, there are over 700  infected there, and the death toll has climbed to seven.

At the end of the day, what is important is to ensure that fewer people get infected by the COVID-19. Had prevention been a primary objective here, perhaps there could have been less spread and easier risk management, thus allowing quicker recovery from the epidemic for all.

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