How Racializing a Virus Affects Leadership


How Racializing a Virus Affects Leadership

In the midst of a global crisis, it is easy to become overwhelmed by competing partisan narratives. One of the most feverishly contested is the narrative of Chinese and WHO responsibility for COVID-19. Within that narrative, we are treated to the racial overtones of a “Chinese virus”, as though a disease has an ethnicity. In a slightly more subtle form, we hear about undifferentiated “Chinese fault”, as though an entire country must account.
This discourse raises questions about the intersectional and interchangeable nature of race, nationality and accountability. In this piece, I’m interested in what the public record reveals about the often politicized and racialized language used to talk about a virus and its relationship to leadership decision-making. ‘A leader’ in these paragraphs refers to those with either formal or personal capacity to inspire people towards the fulfillment of common goals.

‘Chinese fault’ and Variable Country Health Outcomes

To be certain, the PRC badly miscalculated when it initially suppressed information about the virus and later advised the global health body on January 14 that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission, knowing that information was false. It is also accepted the WHO repeated that falsehood on the same day, arguably without appropriate verification.
As if to amplify the chorus, several observers attribute the organization’s error to growing Chinese influence and are now openly questioning the directorship of Tedros Adhanom, an Ethiopian who was, until recently, celebrated as an internationally renowned microbiologist and malaria researcher.
Yet, at the time of writing, most virologists and US intelligence assessments reject the continuing and evolving conspiracies alleging the virus was born through human modification in a Wuhan laboratory. And those who have specifically studied the coronavirus conclude non-laboratory animal-to-human infection remains the most probable cause.
Moreover, as early as January 12th, Chinese representatives shared the COVID genome with the WHO and the world. And it was the WHO working with Chinese public health officials who first rang the global alarm on January 23rd. It declared – “To other countries: It is expected that further international exportation of cases may appear in any country. Thus, all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoV infection, and to share full data with WHO”. The health body followed with a declaration of a public health emergency on January 30th.
Some countries like South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Germany and Nigeria reacted quickly, installing strong mitigation measures which greatly reduced the virus’ spread and related deaths. Those that did not, continue to struggle with persistent infection rates, stressed health care systems presiding over inequitable health outcomes, crippling economic effects from extended lockdowns, and accumulating casualties.
Assigning national and racial responsibility to one state or one people provides no assistance in the understanding of these different country outcomes. More likely, I argue such racialization has exacerbated the damage the virus has been able to inflict.

‘But Didn’t the Virus Come from China?’

We have been deluged by weekly, sometimes daily, evidentiary disclosures of how blaming China has merely satisfied the cynical desires of other governments to distract attention away from their own policy and leadership failures. For its part, the Chinese government appears to be all too willing to engage in this type of propaganda as well. Setting aside concerns for those who may intend to mislead, some still insist that referring to a “Chinese virus” is a value-free assertion. In support, they point to the origins of the contagion within the geographic territory of the PRC. Appearing sensible and rational on the surface, this perspective deserves reconsideration.

After all, haven’t we always referred to viruses by their country of origin?
The Spanish Flu of 1918, the last comparable global pandemic, originated in Spain. Except it didn’t! The first cases were recorded at Fort Riley, Kansas in March several months before arriving in Spain in May 1918. How the misnomer took hold is the subject of ongoing scholarly debate writes public health historian, Jim Harris. “Within days, 522 [Americans] reported sick and by the end of the month, 1,100 soldiers were admitted to hospital with influenza. Among them, 237 developed pneumonia and 38 died (approximately 20 percent of those hospitalized).” The virus migrated to Europe wreaking devastation, consuming millions of lives.
In 2009 a new strain of the H1N1 virus appeared in Mexico, rapidly spreading around the globe. Then there was SARS and Ebola. In each case the disease did not come to be referred to by its country of origin or its people.
Sarah Cobey affirmed “from 2000 to 2010, 87% of the most successful, globally-spreading strains of H3N2 [flu] originated in east, south and southeast Asia”. For this reason, in part, epidemiologists including Cobey from the University of Chicago concluded it was useful to surveil this region for future outbreaks. Geographic origin is therefore a relevant factor in discerning potential virus strain mutations, but this is a separate consideration from how a virus should be called in the context of public health policy and mass communications designed to prepare, inform and protect a citizenry. If an outbreak were to be traced to Canada, the U.S. or the UK today, we would not reasonably expect the respective governments to name them as Canadian, American or British viruses.
If we don’t conventionally refer to virus by country or people of origin, the need to racialize COVID-19 must speak to some other purpose whether intended or not. It is helpful to explore what may be achieved by this differential treatment.

Polarization, Bias and Conspiracy Theories

Racialization of COVID-19 serves a tendency towards polarized thinking particularly in times of great collective stress. Extending psychological research and intercultural scholarship, racialization feeds into invisible and embedded cultural understandings and unconscious biases about the danger or adversity of interacting with those we consider to be outsiders. In this, none of us is immune.
This process also supports our unclaimed tendency to assume and overestimate our own sophistication while underestimating that of others in troubled times. We wouldn’t instinctively name a virus the “Canadian virus” or the “American disease” because the oversimplification doesn’t align with our complex self-perception as peoples. Unconsciously, and perhaps consciously, stigmatizing ourselves in this context doesn’t make sense in the way that stigmatizing others may be justified.
Theories about the attractiveness of conspiracy theories run parallel to the work of racial polarization. In a recent New York Times article, Karen M. Douglas, a social psychologist who studies belief in conspiracies at the University of Kent in Britain argues such “theories may also make people feel less alone. Few things tighten the bonds of ‘us’ like rallying against ‘them’, especially foreigners and minorities, both frequent scapegoats of coronavirus rumors and much else before now”.
Racially tinged conspiracy theories may also be self-empowering as they fulfil “psychological motives that are important to people,” continued Douglas. “Chief among them: command of the facts, autonomy over one’s well-being and a sense of control”.

Blind Spots in Decision-Making

In the result, this racial polarization and bias preclude an appropriate consideration of all relevant factors essential to contemporary leadership decision-making. It creates blind spots in our analyses and generates poor outcomes.
A perspective free from the bias of racialized language might recognize that in the twenty-first century, viral trajectories represent shared rather than specific geographic experience.
The extent of international travel today belies any policy notion that a highly contagious disease can be successfully contained to one country, much less one region. In 2018, IATA data showed there were 4.4 billion air passenger journeys globally with the UK leading the USA and China followed by the rest. That was a 6.9% increase over 2017.
The volume was 2.63 billion in 2010. In 2000, there were only 1.674 billion. Even if air travel does not return to its most recent heights, in a post coronavirus world the idea that borders and oceans buy time or protection must surely be discredited.
We are also confronted with intensifying global urbanization and density and its ability to act as an accelerant to transmission.
Similarly, human migration on scales we have never before seen will likely serve as vectors. Climate change with its extended summers and warming winters may well contribute to virus production rather than its decrease.
Racializing and nationalizing a disease do not help leaders come to terms with these developments. In fact, it may well have only served to narrow the analytical scope as political leaders scrambled to respond to coronavirus outbreaks around the world. In this view, new insights may be gained into the false wisdom of deploying staggered travel restrictions that otherwise inexplicably and artificially divide fluid transnational populations.

Collaboration Suffers

In times of crisis, leaders must summon and galvanize the collective will. Whether they be community advocates, managers or political representatives, leaders must create an environment for effective and inclusive collaboration to solve common problems.
Domestically, racializing a virus obviously does not achieve this. In several countries, members of the Asian diaspora have reported marked increases in Anti-Asian harassment and hate-crime since the discourse of the “China virus” began. The alienation and fear within those populations arises at a time when all available talent across society needs to be brought together to stand against the pandemic’s path.
To the extent that political ideologies approach the subjects of immigration, and more broadly, diversity and inclusion differently, racialization of a disease variously promotes trust or foments distrust in institutions along partisan lines. The focus on racial responsibility nurses undue grievances, and emphasizes retribution and compensation where self-reflection and internal accountability should be in their place. Instead of focussing on efforts to coordinate, attention is diverted to shaping and harnessing the power of complaint.
Rising populism is said to have inspired more recent trends towards nationalism and a retreat from international cooperation. Racialization of disease merely furthers that project. Rather than focus on shared challenges, it reinforces division and nurtures mistrust. This does little to encourage the global sharing of information, particularly potentially unflattering information, and little to foster the innovative potential that comes from working collaboratively across culture and difference to find solutions.
Let the epidemiologists focus on geographic origins of pandemics. True leaders should get on with the business of protecting the public health and preparing for a more challenging but still limitless future.


Michael F. Charles is the University Advisor on Equity and Inclusive Communities at Carleton University and a member of the Universities Canada EDI Advisory Group. He has provided EDI consulting services to a broad array of organizations across North America in the financial services, legal, healthcare, non-profit and broader public services sector. In 2015, he co-authored “The Challenges Facing Racialized Licensees” report for the Law Society of Upper Canada, now the Law Society of Ontario. Examining the experiences of 45,000 racialized and non-racialized lawyers and paralegals, the study remains the largest of its kind in Canada, leading to transformative governance changes within the legal profession. Michael aligns his professional with his personal interests, currently serving as the Executive Committee LGBT Chair for Human Rights Watch (Canada). He is a frequent speaker, advisor and author on matters of organizational culture, inclusion, and human rights.

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