TAMU-CC Professors Suggest Training to Combat Stigmatization, Prejudice Related to COVID-19

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – As the COVID-19 pandemic surges across the country, more and more people are feeling the impacts of the virus. A tendency is to seek out something or someone to blame, and sometimes the blame is unfairly placed.

“In the months since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has overwhelmed the world, numerous popular press articles have recounted cases of mistreatment toward others rooted in traits associated with the illness,” said Dr. Andrew F. Johnson, Assistant Professor of Management at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “These accounts are the latest repercussion of a long-running ‘otherness’ that Western society has attributed to Asian peoples.”

A team of researchers from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi studied the rise of stigmatization and prejudice during the COVID-19 pandemic and published their findings in an academic journal, “Administrative Theory and Praxis.” In addition to Johnson, researchers include Dr. Katherine J. Roberto, Assistant Professor of Management, and Dr. Beth M. Rauhaus, Associate Professor of Public Administration and Masters of Public Administration Program Coordinator.

The researchers looked at how social stigmas and prejudice may present greater challenges as governments restrict individuals’ movements and plan ways to move to more normal social interaction.

“A discussion of COVID-19 in the context of stigmatization, social identity, and social cognition theories offers a means to better understand how those impacted and stereotyped by the virus may also experience negative treatment by others,” the researchers noted. “Prejudice and discrimination may lead to an increasingly volatile situation as nations lift restrictions on movement, interactions increase, and the number of infections continues to climb. As many of those infected show few or no symptoms, the potential for stigmatization increases, as people use traits (e.g., race), other than symptoms, to determine who might be infected.”

Since the first infections were detected in late 2019, the pandemic has caused illness and fatalities, and impacted economies across the globe.

“Billions of people have been advised, or in many cases mandated, to minimize social gatherings and limit person-to-person contact,” the researchers wrote. “Alongside these unusual measures, a strong sense of fear and uncertainty is increasing among many populations given the rapidly evolving conditions. The number of those infected, fatalities, and unemployed have all seen exponential increases.”

The team said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the potential to “exacerbate social inequities in our cities and counties, disproportionately impacting low-income communities of color as well as indigenous, immigrant, and refugee populations.”

“As governments address the pandemic, elements of equity should be considered, including proper public communication for diverse publics to combat social stigmas,” they said. “Crisis and acts of violence often negatively impact or specifically target under-represented social or religious groups, illustrating the persistence of race-based prejudice in the U.S.”

Johnson said as the pandemic evolves over the next several months, concerns about stigmatization and prejudice will continue.

“People will experience stress related to health, finances, and disruption to our daily lives,” Johnson said. “Within this environment, biased behavior is still likely to occur. Additionally, political leaders have continued to use language that is biased to address the pandemic. Some people will continue to ‘place blame’ unless society and organizations take meaningful steps to counter this narrative and not permit stigmatization and its consequences to occur.”

A key element of the paper is a set of recommendations for public entities, businesses, and other organizations.

“Preparing public servants and organizations for leading diverse communities is imperative,” they said. “Incorporating cultural competence and social equity into employee trainings, as well as public service announcements and communications, may be essential in minimizing stigmas, overcoming stereotypes, and reducing aggressive behavior.”

Johnson said it is important to ensure that correct information is being disseminated, non-biased language is used, and an ongoing open dialog with employees and stakeholders is promoted. On university campuses and in schools, educators need to be willing to have conversations about biases and the value of diversity, he said. 

“Leaders who focus their energy on finding solutions to the pandemic instead of assigning blame will be more effective,” Johnson said. “Using a positive, forward-looking approach has the added benefit in that actions of leaders often trickle down through their followers and connections.”