COVID-19 and xenophobia: Psychological effects affect social contagionion in COVID-19 pandemic and infodemic

Coronavirus is spreading, so is anti-Chinese sentiment and xenophobia.

Fears over new coronavirus have fueled anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia. People are hard-wired to be cautious and watch the herd, forgetting no one is bystander at all. As another looming worry, the world is never ready for the imminent psychological typhoon eye effect in the COVID-19 pandemic when the buzz bites back.

Switzerland: WHO denounces “stigma” related to coronavirus (Feb. 7, 2020).

World Health Organization (WHO) officials called on member states to take action against stigma related to the novel coronavirus, during a briefing for member states in Geneva on 7 Feb. 2020.

“I think the bigger point here is to ensure that some of the actions, some of the reactions internationally, it is the responsibility of us all to ensure there is no stigma associated with this disease, and the unnecessary, unhelpful profiling of individuals based on ethnicity is utterly and completely unacceptable and it needs to stop,” said Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme Dr Michael Ryan.

The briefing also saw a discussion related to WHO’s assigning the interim name of 2019-nCOV (novel coronavirus) acute respiratory disease to the virus. “We thought it very important that we provide an interim name so no location was associated with the name. I’m sure you have seen many media reports that are still calling this, using the name Wuhan or using China,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove. “We wanted to ensure that there was no stigma associated with this virus. And so we’ve put out an interim name.”

Van Kerkhove also said that in preparation for a global research meeting on coronavirus on February 11-12 “the global community around clinical management will be meeting to discuss the research needs to better care for patients infected with novel coronavirus.”

The Coronavirus outbreak has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Chinese health officials said that the death toll has reached 630, with more than 30,000 infected in China alone.

How does psychological effects affect social contagionion in COVID infodemic?

SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus responsible for an outbreak of respiratory illness known as COVID-19, which has spread to many countries around the world. The respiratory illness has upended global stock markets, supply chains, company earnings and investors’ portfolios.  The National Health Commission has issued guidelines for emergency psychological crisis intervention for people affected by COVID-19. Medical institutions and universities across China have opened online platforms to provide psychological counselling services for patients, their family members, and other people affected by the epidemic.

However, the mental health needs of patients with confirmed COVID-19, patients with suspected infection, quarantined family members, and medical personnel have been poorly handled. In fact, all of us are susceptible to psychological effects caused by public health emergencies, more or less. Epidemics confront us with existential life-and-death questions that invoke strong emotions. Medical science and public health practitioners should address feelings as a key part of communication and preparedness, rather than dismiss them. It is as if an epidemic can be reduced to a pathological process, one that exists wholly detached from social life – a biological predicament suspended from the world of feeling. Instead of simply condemning panic, which will beget nothing more than further panic, we need to address the fears from which panic springs.

  • Herd mentality (mob mentality and pack mentality, also lesser known as gang mentality) describes how people can be influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors on a largely emotional, rather than rational, basis. When individuals are affected by mob mentality, they may make different decisions than they would have individually.
  • Bystander effect (bystander apathy) is a social psychological claim that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present; the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help.
  • Psychological typhoon eye effect is a paradoxical psychological phenomenon that the respondents in the closer to the epicenter of pandemic appear to be the least concerned by the ongoing risks in the progression/aftermath of a devastating pandemic.

Herd mentality

The coronavirus outbreak is the first “infodemic” (Wiktionary defines an infodemic as “An excessive amount of information concerning a problem such that the solution is made more difficult.”) because of how much more we are all glued to online news. Some of the information swirling around on the Internet isn’t even accurate – or is intentionally fabricated.

As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation, declared at the Munich security conference on February 15, “we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” He has called on countries to push back against the “2019-nCoV infodemic” of such fake news, which he said was equally dangerous. WHO has been working with Google “to make sure people searching for information about the new coronavirus see WHO information at the top of their search results,” he said.

Racist COVID-19 headlines torment Chinese diaspora. In Australia, “Chinese Virus Pandamonium” screamed from the front page of Melbourne’s Herald Sun late January as the coronavirus outbreak in China started grabbing international headlines.  More than 46,000 people from the resident Chinese community in Australia signed a petition that called the headline “unacceptable race discrimination.” Le Courrier Picard, a regional newspaper in northern France, caused outrage with its “Yellow Alert” headline. The newspaper later apologized. On Twitter in Japan, where there has long been unease about the conduct of Chinese tourists, commenters have labeled them “dirty” and “insensitive” and have called them “bioterrorists.”

In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Pan is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, nature of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and companion of the nymphs. He has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, in the same manner as a faun or satyr.

The Australian tabloid might have thought it smart and funny to coin the portmanteau of “panda” and “pandemonium” to describe the outbreak, however it evidently reeked of racism. “Panic”, a word that derives from the ancient Greek god Pan, the half-goat and half-human deity of wild excess and pure emotion, with “pan” for “pandemonium”. 

A cartoon about the virus outbreak in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten sparked fury in China. (Credit: EPA)
President Donald Trump for the first time on his Twitter feed used a xenophobic phrase “Chinese Virus” on 17 March 2020, adding fuel to fire with Beijing. (Source: @realDonaldTrump)

Disinformations flew to and fro, and nothing seemed certain or obviously right. There is a psychological impact from the uncertainty and future forecasting that is greater versus a tangible news release like a Chinese economic slowdown or bad winter in the US that is quickly stale news. The huge amount of time we all spend on smartphones, tablets and desktops gathering the latest scary headlines is also a factor in what happens to stock prices on fear cycles over time. Reacting strongly to fear signals is hard-wired into humans. Our adrenaline surges. Our heart rates shoot up. Our vision becomes focused. Then our herd mentality kicks in  – and we think about what others are thinking. At first, we are cautious. We wait for confirmation before we act. Even such actions have been likened to trying to catch a falling knife.


Toilet paper stockpiling whipped up by social media is another illustrative example. Besides facial masks, cleaning products and food, toilet paper is also on consumers’ panic shopping lists amid the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak.

Social media has been flooded with images of people buying large quantities of toilet paper and empty shelves, while #toiletpapergate and #toiletpapercrisis became trending topics among net users.

Social media posts are contributing to toilet paper panic buying and stockpiling, said Steven Taylor, a Canadian psychologist and author of “The Psychology of Pandemics.” Taylor pointed out that net users seldom repost pictures of calm shoppers and full supermarkets, but images of overstuffed shopping carts and empty toilet paper shelves easily go viral. He said these trending images probably create the illusion of urgency and scarcity, which makes people rush to purchase the toilet paper.

From buying up ALL the loo roll to meeting their mates in the pub, some people have been less than helpful during the coronavirus pandemic, but now we have a new term to describe them – covidiots.

Urban Dictionary recently coined the term covidiot which applies to those who go against public health advice amid the coronavirus outbreak. Defined as “someone who ignores the warnings regarding public health or safety” or “a person who hoards goods, denying them from neighbours.” The online dictionary gives examples of how the phrase can be used, including: “Did you see that covidiot with 300 rolls of toilet paper in his basket?” The new definition has been voted up hundreds of times by users of the website. And of course, Twitter users were quick to give the new word the thumbs up emoji.

FOMO syndrome

FOMO syndrome, also known as fear of missing out, accounts for the toilet paper panic buying as well, said Nitika Garg, associate professor from the University of New South Wales during an interview with BBC. The syndrome refers to people’s anxiety over the possibility of missing out on something. According to Garg, FOMO will trigger people to join the herd of toilet paper buyers. Driven by the syndrome, when some people see others stockpiling large amounts of toilet paper, they might think there is a reason and they must stock up some as well.

Disappearing of toilet paper is more noticeable. “When 50 packs of toilet paper rolls disappear off shelves, you really notice it because they take up so much room,” Debra Grace, a professor from Griffith University told BBC. “It’s much more noticeable than 50 bottles of hand sanitizer disappearing.” In a column article published by The Guardian, British behavior researchers Liam Smith and Celine Klemm also pointed out that toilet paper itself will send a wrong signal to panic buying. They said toilet paper is bulky and the shelves will look empty quickly when removed, which triggers the perceptions of scarcity among consumers.

Reaction to lack of a clear direction from officials is another reason. Baruch Fischhoff, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, thought people’s stocking up of toilet paper may be a reaction to the lack of a clear direction from officials. Fischhoff said when several countries took measures like quarantining to combat against the novel coronavirus outbreak, people began buying more toilet paper and other household products in preparation for the same thing in their countries. If officials don’t give clear information about goods production and supplies, people may panic thinking there’s a possible shortage and rush to purchase goods.

Bystander effect

Morbid headline “China is the real Sick Man of Asia” on WSJ sparked fury in China. (Data source: Google Trends)
Bystander effect. Morbid headline “China is the real Sick Man of Asia” on WSJ sparked fury in Chinese community, whereas other communities are less likely to offer help to Chinese, acting as bystanders.


Under guidance from governments and health organizations across the world, whole communities — and even countries — are hunkering down to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. For many, that means stocking up on food, toiletries and other necessary supplies. But for others, who might be elderly or physically unable to do so, such necessities may be harder to come by.

That’s where “caremongering” comes in.

In fact, caremongering — whether it’s called that or not — has already taken off on many social media platforms, with neighbors or community members offering to be of service in any way they can. One woman, Becky Wass, even made headlines a few days back with a “#viralkindness card she distributed among her elderly neighbors.

Valentina Harper, a Toronto resident who was one of the first people to set up a “caremongering” Facebook group (along with friend Mita Hans), explained her reasoning to the BBC.

Scaremongering is a big problem,” Harper told the BBC. “We wanted to switch that around and get people to connect on a positive level, to connect with each other. “It’s spread the opposite of panic in people, brought out community and camaraderie, and allowed us to tackle the needs of those who are at-risk all the time — now more than ever.

Many other “caremongering” groups across Canada appeared to work the same way, with supporters offering everything from free coffee to books. “Anxiety, isolation and lack of hope affects you. In providing this virtual community, which allows people to help each other, I think it is really showing people there is still hope for humanity. We haven’t lost our hope,” Harper told the BBC.

Antidotes to infodemic

Technology was never the vanquisher of misinformation, but rather its mass disseminator. Everyone has a duty to share wisely, click carefully and not feed the trolls!

The government often ends up managing consequences when large-scale events happen, so it must be ready to minimize them. Five principles can help governments manage massive infodemics:

  • First, quarantine is not an option. As the early Internet adage had it, “Information wants to be free.” It’s impossible to stop the movement of information.
  • Second, be prepared. Model the spread of information, test it in scenarios. Create and deploy likely responses in advance, and be ready to tweak them.
  • Third, use public networks to your advantage. The Internet community will debunk pretty much anything, if it has the facts. The Web can be a powerful ally in reducing fear and promoting reason, but only if the facts are available from credible and trusted sources.
  • Fourth, respond promptly to all inquiries. Even if all the facts aren’t in, being readily accessible helps ensure that rumors and speculation are balanced by analysis. Reporters are going to print someone’s response; it’s better if it’s yours.
  • Finally, build trust through transparency. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in another context, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” Infodemics thrive on misinformation. Only if the government is perceived as a trusted, open information source will it stay on top of the threat.


About Sunney 116 Articles
I am currently a Professor of Zhejiang Gongshang University, Hangzhou, China.

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