Peter Gries: Pathogens and Prejudice. Will the coronavirus infect our community?

by | Feb 6, 2020 | Faculty of Humanities | 6 comments

This advice is correct at the time of publication of this news article.  For the latest information, please check Public Health England and the University’s coronavirus website.

Peter Gries, Director of the Manchester China Institute and Professor of Chinese politics at the University discusses how coronavirus is affecting the local community.

The Year of the Rat has not started well. In China, over 10,000 people have been infected by the Coronavirus, and hundreds have died. The US, Australia, and many of China’s East Asian neighbours have barred entry to foreigners who have recently been to China. Three major American airlines have suspended flights to China.

Things don’t look great in the UK either. In London, East Asians report feeling stereotyped as agents of disease, creating a hostile environment for them. In Sheffield, a Chinese student walking towards the University was verbally abused about wearing a mask. Anxiety is high.

Will the coronavirus infect our community here in Manchester?

Fear of contamination
The coronavirus appears to be moderately contagious, but much less deadly than the earlier SARS virus it is often compared to. A medical sociologist has argued that there will be no Zombie Apocalypse, and it will likely be no worse than the common flu. Our best defence is frequent handwashing. Facemasks may add some additional protection, and are certainly not to be feared: they are worn to prevent contagion. They are not a sign of disease.

But will the coronavirus figuratively infect our community? Will we permit it to poison our interactions with each other? Will we allow stereotypes to multiply, and prejudice to flourish? Given that The University of Manchester boasts the largest Chinese student population of any university in Europe, and the city of Manchester is home to the second largest Chinese community in the UK, these are consequential questions.

Fears of contamination can contribute to prejudice and exclusion. We should learn from our past so that we don’t repeat it. And we should mine research in psychology to better understand and combat the link between pathogens and prejudice.

Stereotypes and prejudice
Age old stereotypes of foreigners and immigrants as dirty and diseased are resurfacing, targeting Chinese. On January 27, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten posted a cartoon of the PRC flag with its stars replaced by virus molecules. While the PRC flag is associated with the Chinese Communist Party, the cartoon also links Mainland Chinese to disease. Similarly, the February 1 cover of Der Spiegel featured a Chinese man in a protective air mask and goggles, and is entitled, “Coronavirus: Made in China.”

Prejudice and pathogens are central to xenophobia. Fear of contact with the foreign often contributes to opposition to both international trade and immigration, from 19th Century America to 21st Century Britain. Importantly, xenophobia is often rationalised with arguments about the need to protect our purity from foreign contamination.

In my last book, which explored how ideology divides Americans in their worldviews and foreign policy preferences, I discuss the 1892 political cartoon “Quarantined”. A boat approaches a pier, but a health officer declares, “No, gentlemen, you cannot land here; you have a bad attack of the free-trade plague, and it will take several years to fumigate you properly!” Foreign ships entering New York Harbor had brought cholera with them, and were now to be quarantined. But the cartoon is really about the partisan politics of the 1890 McKinley Tariff and the American debate over protectionism. Note the language of contamination used to support protectionism and exclusion. Foreigners bring the plague, so must be held at arm’s length until decontaminated.

Confronting the coronavirus, we can also learn from studies of the recent SARS and Ebola outbreaks. For instance, during the 2014 Ebola epidemic, a study in Germany found that pre-existing levels of prejudice towards African immigrants were a stronger predictor of mandatory quarantines than actual fear of infection.

In short, let’s all take prudent measures to protect ourselves and each other from the coronavirus. But let’s not let a fear of pathogens contribute to prejudice—or be a post-facto rationalisation for exclusionary behaviours. Let’s all wash our hands of this virus—not of each other.

Peter Gries is the Lee Kai Hung Chair and Director of the Manchester China Institute, and Professor of Chinese politics at the University of Manchester.


  1. Karen Sykes

    The Chinese students have been the single sector the university community most vulnerable to the virus since the first week of semester. Well said to note it as a social concern to the university community.

    I am aware of the university’s zero tolerance policy on racism, bullying, and harassment, but the policy is perhaps too blunt a hammer to deal with the nuances of the deeper bodily responses some people feel when confronted with news of the spreading epidemic that PHE now seeks to contain. Some of the most damaging incidents are subtle, cut deep, but even when noted cannot be stopped easily. Text and speech fails to grasp the evidence, and ‘calling out’ the offensive behaviour can potentially cause more embarrassment to the victim of it. For example, I am told of one or two Chinese students who have been left to sit alone on one side of the tutorial room, and that classmates have turned their backs to the faces of Chinese students while sitting side-by-side in lecture theatre. I think these sad incidents are symptoms of the wider failure of a shared sense of community in the university.

    Thanks for your call to reflect on the values shared by the wider university community, and to suggest a shift of our concerns from self-protection to how to protect each other.

    • Peter Gries

      Thanks for your thoughtful intervention, Karen. Sorry to hear about the mistreatment of Chinese students in our classrooms. We all need pull together to combat such exclusionary practices.

  2. Val Lenferna

    Well said Pete.

    • Peter Gries

      Thanks, Val!

  3. Anusarin Lowe

    As a non-native to Manchester, when I converse with the locals (which itself is relative), I try to be sensitive because I sometimes notice resentment towards foreigners. I sense that this doesn’t come from xenophobia or racial prejudices but rather, the perhaps perceived economic disadvantages pushed onto the locals by globalised newcomers who take advantage of Manchester’s prosperity in the past 20 years while leaving behind the locals to struggle on low income jobs and high living costs. Having said that, considering what’s happened in Sheffield, let’s hope none of our students ever have to experience such an abuse. Manchester is an inclusive place. With a health crisis like this, we pull together, rather than stigmatise and alienate people. Some sensitivity and compassion go a long way.

    • Peter Gries

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      Whether the perceived privilege of certain groups of foreigners like Chinese in Manchester is an actual driver of prejudice and resentment, or an after the fact rationalisation for preexisting prejudices is likely highly contingent on the context. Would be fascinating to study!

      I certainly agree that now is the time to pull together!


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