The Other Pandemic: Disgust and Fear Spread, Too

Woman walking outside wearing face-covering mask and holding umbrella

As we struggle to avoid getting infected with the coronavirus, there’s another danger we face: becoming afraid of each other.

Hate crimes against Asian Americans had been declining for nearly two decades. Then, the coronavirus reached the U.S. and things changed quickly. In February 2020, when there were just 15 known cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., a teen in a Los Angeles school was beaten by other students who accused him of having the illness. In Texas in March, an Asian-American father and his two children, ages 2 and 6, were stabbed by a man who allegedly told police he intended to kill the people “because he thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus.” (All three survived.)

These are just two of more than 1,000 reported incidents of violence, harassment or vandalism against Asian Americans in the past few months. The FBI has warned that “hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease … The FBI makes this assessment based on the assumption that a portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.”

As explains, there is a long history for such racist associations.

“I don’t think we would have seen the spike in anti-Asian bias without a pretty strong foundation rooted in the ‘forever foreigner’ stereotype,” says University of Maryland Asian American studies professor Janelle Wong.

The “forever foreigner” idea … suggests that Asians who live in America are fundamentally foreign and can’t be fully American. Enduring tropes that have associated Asian Americans with illness and the consumption of “weird” foods, which have reemerged in relation to the coronavirus, are among those that play into this concept.

This is an important point. Anger is fueling the assaults and insults against Asian Americans, but that’s only part of the story. The anger may well stem from fear, and the fear from disgust.

Psychologist Rachel Herz calls disgust “the instinct that has to be learned.” For example, babies aren’t born with an aversion to excrement; they learn it from the adults who potty train them. But once a disgust association is made, it’s strong and usually enduring.

Disgust serves an important purpose, steering us away from potentially harmful substances. But we can make disgust associations with certain people, based on their appearances or behaviors, as Herz explained on the Hidden Brain podcast: “It has to do with something more insidious, and that’s related to our feelings about our social environment and the people in it. And the idea that foreigners and strangers and so forth are threats to our social order and that then becomes somehow connected to our ideas about contamination.”

Ideas about contamination may have been what prompted Ohio state Sen. Steve Huffman to ask at a hearing whether poor hygiene habits play a role in COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black people. “Could it just be that African Americans — the colored population — do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear a mask? Or do not socially distance themselves? Could that just be maybe the explanation of why there’s a higher incidence?”

It’s not just race that triggers feelings of disgust in some people — the perception of poverty can as well. In her book Mind Over Money, psychologist Claudia Hammond described a study of brain scans taken of volunteers while they were viewing images of people from different social classes. When the volunteers looked at images of obviously wealthy people, the brain scans showed activity in the area related to recognizing another human, as opposed to an animal or object. But no such activity occurred when the volunteers were shown a photo of a homeless man.

“The brains of the volunteers didn’t register that the shambling guy with the matted hair, the shapeless coat and the broken-down boots was another human being,” Hammond writes. “Instead the areas of the brain associated with disgust were activated. A vulnerable person was dehumanized.”

We’re all prone to biases. As social animals, we are hardwired to make quick judgments about others’ capacity or intention to hurt or help us. Empathy helps us override feelings of fear or disgust for others, but empathy becomes more difficult under stress. The coronavirus pandemic has added whole new layers of worry to our daily lives — chief among them, perhaps, the possibility that anyone might have it. (“According to a new study from Italy, some 43 percent of people with the virus have no symptoms, The Atlantic reports.)

“Right now we are all experiencing, in a conscious way, the unconscious disgust drive,” explains Dr. Ben Kearney, chief clinical officer at OhioGuidestone and senior fellow at the Institute of Family & Community Impact. “We are very aware that another person might be infected and dangerous to us, and if that person sneezed on you, you’d be disgusted and angry.

“The danger we all face — besides getting infected — is that we will lose our empathetic connections the more we’re fearful of the stranger and the other. Just as we have become more conscious of the dangers of the other, we have to become more conscious of acts of compassion and grace and kindness. If we fail, we are setting ourselves up for an even more rigid, withdrawn, angry culture.” 

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