Widespread Diseases and Pandemics exposes man’s unsavory impulses: Prejudice & Scapegoating

In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have had cause to reflect deeply on how we as humans respond in times of widespread crisis and fears. Humans are rational animals some would say. That presupposes that we think through our actions and that we are reasonable and logical when making pronouncements and decisions.

However, in times of much fear, great anxiety, and excessive stress especially on things that are beyond our control, it appears that we throw caution to the wind and resort to primitive or innate impulses. As a result, we accuse others of been at fault, we blame others for our mistakes or failings, and we show prejudice and bias against individuals or groups we perceive as the enemy. I saw this first hand and I want to share some personal accounts and relate them to historical precedents of prejudice and scapegoating in times of widespread diseases and pandemics.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

‘The Chinese are coming to kill us’

It was in April of 2020, few months into the COVID-19 (short for Coronavirus Disease 2019) pandemic, the Nigerian Government made an announcement that unsettled many Nigerians. The Government announced that a delegation of Chinese medical personnel were scheduled to visit Nigeria to share their experience with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) on the fight against COVID-19. (1)

The immediate reaction to this announcement was largely negative. Many Nigerians were opposed to the arrival of the Chinese team. At that time, Nigeria had relatively few confirmed COVID-19 cases, and as such, some felt that Nigeria did not need foreign help, that Nigerian medics got it covered. Others said that the Chinese delegation had ulterior motives to spread COVID-19 in Nigeria and thus kill Nigerians. A reference was made to Italy. Some said that the visit of a similar Chinese team to assist in Italy coincided with a steep rise of COVD-19 cases in that country.

“We are therefore profoundly dismayed to learn that the Federal Government is instead inviting the Chinese who from available accounts are not out of the woods themselves. The spike in cases and the death toll from COVID -19 in Italy coincided with the arrival of the Chinese in the guise of offering assistance. Even the United Nations has only just recently commended the efforts of Nigeria so far.”

Excerpt of a Statement from the then President of the NMA, on April 6, 2020 (https://www.premiumtimesng.com/health/health-news/386163-coronavirus-nigerian-doctors-reject-countrys-plan-to-invite-chinese-medical-team.html)

The above quote from a press statement released at the time by the then President of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) captures the prevailing mental attitude at the time. (It appears that some of those comments were later walked back.)

The implication of these views were that the Chinese were deliberately sending teams of experts to spread COVID-19 around the world and thus killing people.

However, these views were based on mere sentiments, racial stereotypes and prejudice, not on the facts. The Chinese medical team that went to assist in Italy only went because the Italians were already facing an upsurge of COVID-19 cases in their country. And it was impossible for a handful of Chinese experts to go around Italy and spread COVID-19 without the knowing of the Italian security services.

It was not factual and it was not rational to believe in the “The Chinese are coming to kill us in Nigeria”, but people believed in these conspiracy theories anyway. Even individuals who are highly educated and well-trained succumbed to the age-old problem of racial stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination and scapegoating of groups, tribes or races.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What are Stereotype, Prejudice, Discrimination, Scapegoating?

A book on sociology defines these terms as:

“Stereotypes are oversimplified ideas about groups of people. Stereotypes can be based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation-almost any characteristic. They may be positive … but are often negative (usually toward other groups, such as when members of a dominant racial group suggest that a subordinate racial group is stupid or lazy). “Prejudice refers to beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes that someone holds about a group. A prejudice is not based on experience; instead, it is a prejudgment, originating outside of actual experience. Racism is a type of prejudice that is used to justify the belief that one racial category is somehow superior or inferior to others.

“ While prejudice refers to biased thinking, discrimination consists of actions against a group of people. Discrimination can be based on age, religion, health, and other indicators. “

OpenStax: https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology/pages/11-2-stereotypes-prejudice-and-discrimination

What about scapegoating? The Cambridge Dictionary defines scapegoating as “ the act of blaming a person or group for something bad that has happened or that someone else has done” (2)

These terminologies aptly describes what happened. COVID-19 was first detected in the city of Wuhan, China in December, 2019. The early cases of COVID-19 detected outside mainland China had history of travel from China or contact with someone with history of travel from China. In the US, and other nations, there were widespread sentiments against people of Chinese Nationality. There were verbal and physical attacks on people of Asian descent. There was a steep rise in Sinophobia.

China has businesses in Nigeria. They have investments in Nigeria, There are Chinese nationals working and living in Nigeria. Nigeria borrows a lot of money from China. But, when COVID-19 struck and China offered to help, Nigerians protested against it, ‘They are coming to kill us’. One wonders if the Chinese intended to kill Nigerians all along, what prevented them from doing that all the years or decades they’ve been running businesses and deals in Nigeria. Well, it turns out that the team of experts that arrived from China with plane loads of essential supplies to the country were mainly employees of a private Chinese firm in Nigeria and that their arrival was part of the corporate social responsibility of that company towards Nigeria. All the fear and hysteria of many Nigerians toward the Chinese was all for nothing.

Photo by Bu00e9bu00e9 Ehiem on Pexels.com

‘Africans are bringing Ebola to our shores’

On the 24th of October, 2014, 2 brothers, 11-year-old Amadou Drame and 13-year-old Pape Drame, were beaten by their classmates. What was their offence? Ebola. Some of the students in that school called these brothers “Ebola”, not because they had the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), but because they had travelled from Senegal, an African country with just 1 case of Ebola, a month earlier. (3)

The West African Ebola Epidemic of 2014–2016 started in Guinea in March, 2014. It later spread to neighbouring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. These 3 countries were the epicentre of that Ebola outbreak. (4,5) In the US, Ebola was largely an African problem, until Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man visiting family in Dallas, was diagnosed with Ebola. Even though the US had very few cases of Ebola, the media attention paid to Thomas Eric Duncan drove panic and fear in the heart of Americans.

As a result, people with history of travel from Africa were stigmatized. School children like the Drame brothers faced bullying and discrimination. Some workers were placed on leave because they had travelled to Africa . International application from students from Africa were rejected, even from African countries with no Ebola cases. Some regarded the Continent of Africa as one country, so anyone coming from Africa was otherized.

Africans faced racial prejudice and discrimination during the Ebola crisis same way the Chinese faced attacks in the COVID-19 era. The story of scapegoating and racial discrimination also took place in earlier pandemics in the history of man.

‘The Jews poisoned the wells’

The Bubonic plague, also called the Black Death, of the 14th Century killed about 50 million people worldwide. (6) In a lecture given by Jenna Healey, Assistant Professor, History of Medicine at Queen’s University, wherein, she explained how antisemitic sentiments led to the persecution and the killing of the Jews during that pandemic. See 👇(6)

The Jewish population in Europe were falsely accused of poisoning wells that led to the spread of the Bubonic plague. Some Jews were tortured to obtain false and coerced confessions to back these allegations. In Germany, 2000 Jews were killed in Strasberg and 12,000 were killed in Mainz. In Strasberg, Jews were burnt to death on a wooden platform (6)

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains the actual cause of the Black Death,

“The Black Death is believed to have been the result of plague, an infectious fever caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The disease was likely transmitted from rodents to humans by the bite of infected fleas.” (7)

Obviously, the Jewish were not the cause of the Black Death. They were simply targeted as a group, just like Africans with Ebola and the Chinese with COVID-19. The Jewish people may have been targeted for financial reasons.💰 They may have been targeted for living in segregated households. Whatever the reason was, it was certainly not because they caused the Black Death. Even with the advances of science and medicine, the blame game, the stigmatization, the disease-shaming, the scapegoating still continues in the 21st Century.

My experience with prejudice

I remember growing up in Southern Nigeria. My early education was in a Primary school not far from a river, the Ethiope River. There were some residential buildings that were close to the river. I remember been told that those who lived there were people of a different ethnic heritage. I was told that their forebears came through the River for trade and fishing, but ended up staying and occupying the lands close to the river.

This group of people have lived several generations in that area, yet some locals still see them as people who came and occupied “our land”. It didn’t matter if they are staying legally. It didn’t matter that they have had multiple generations living in that place. It didn’t matter that they were responsible members of the community, civil servants, teachers, skilled men and women contributing taxes and helping to grow and develop the community; at the end, they’re still “people who came through the river and took our land”.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I didn’t give much thought to it until years later when I had to go to another place for higher learning. I met more groups of people who can best be described as ‘people who came and occupied our land’. When I finished school, I moved up North. I grew up in Southern Nigeria, but I work in Northern Nigeria. Sometimes, I see myself in the shoes of those who lived near the river of my childhood, a foreigner in another man’s land. I finally had a sense of what it felt like.

I have lived and travelled the length and breadth of Nigeria. I have an understanding of prevailing mental attitudes in different parts of the country. There are preconceived ideas, stereotypes, rush to judgement about different ethnic groups and regions of the country. These sentiments are not held by just the laymen on the streets. Even educated and highly trained individuals do hold these ideas/views. And in times of crisis or conflicts, those ideas will turn to actions that sew divisions and rancour.

The internet age, social media & spread of misinformation

The world has more advanced technology that ever before. Information spreads on the internet and social media at lightening speed. Unlike in the past when people relied on traditional media (TVs, Radio, newspapers), physical books, physical libraries for information, now with a smartphone, just about anyone can access information, post or share a message or information that will be relayed to millions around the world without authentication or fact checking. In the older traditional media format, efforts were made to crosscheck and double check the information before sharing them. Not so much nowadays! Millions receive information and share with others without giving a thought about it’s authenticity.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Years ago, when we what to find out if an information is true, we Google it. If we want to know the facts in a discourse, we Google it. Nowadays, if someone sees an information on social media, he/she shares it on WhatsApp or Facebook or Instagram or Twitter with the caption, ‘Is it true?’ I always frown at such practice, ‘Why can’t you find out yourself if it is true before sharing it on social media?’ Instead of going online to make research, people go to WhatsApp groups or Telegram groups to find out information they can easily get on Google. I have seen health professionals on WhatsApp groups or chats posting questionable materials on health matters and then asking others in the group to verify it’s authenticity. In Medicine/Health, like other professions, there are reputable sites where one can get reliable information on any subject. Instead of using these sites to check for information, some health personnel I have seen rely on social media for information.

This is just an example of how misinformation are shared on social media, and even those who should know better don’t crosscheck the authenticity of the information before sharing them.

As such, misinformation on social media has contributed to hate, misconceptions, biased sentiments, prejudice, racial discrimination and scapegoating in our lifetime. Some deep-rooted beliefs are shaped by what was seen on social media

Finally, we must acknowledge out inherent bias/prejudice, and then address them

It is important that each one of us acknowledge that we have inherent bias and prejudice towards other people who are not like us. It’s not always our fault. We were raised and brought up listening to certain narratives about other groups of people. The experiences we have and the exposures we have help to colour or modify these prevailing views we hold.

If someone calls us ‘racist, or tribalistic or judgemental’, we recoil at the thought. “I’m not a racist. I’m not tribalistic. I don’t stereotype people. I’m a true Nigeria. I’m a patriot”, you would say. But the next moment someone offends you, you say, “Look at this Yoruba man. Look at that Igbo man. Look at this Hausa man. See this Indian man!” In that moment of light humour or snap remarks, we reveal our bias.

COVID-19 has shown us that we need to do better. The spread of false information and conspiracy theories have made it easy for people to dwell and build on negative stereotypes and bias.

We must acknowledge our inherent nature to harbour bias that is based on feelings and prevailing mental attitude of people around us, not on facts. And we must confront these prejudice head-on.

The COVID-19 pandemic, as did other widespread diseases and pandemics, has taught us that we all must do better!❤️🙏👍


(1) Premium Times ( https://www.premiumtimesng.com/coronavirus/385950-covid-19-why-chinese-doctors-are-coming-to-nigeria-official.html)

(2) Cambridge Dictionary ( https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/scapegoating)

(3) Time ( https://time.com/3544130/ebola-panic-xenophobia/)

(4) CDC ( https://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/history/chronology.html)

(5) Medscape ( https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/216288-overview#showall)

(6) Jenna Healey. Racism, Scapegoating, & Blame in the History of Epidemics ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcJAy_BdhOs&t=2282s)

(7) Britannica ( https://www.britannica.com/event/Black-Death)

Originally published at http://eugeneojirigho.wordpress.com on January 20, 2022.




I write, I teach, I educate, on a variety of issues: health, science, history, politics, current and trending issues. I just want to write and share my views.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Dr Eugene Ojirigho

Dr Eugene Ojirigho

I write, I teach, I educate, on a variety of issues: health, science, history, politics, current and trending issues. I just want to write and share my views.

More from Medium

Some thoughts on anxiety for Crypto/NFT people.

A bench on a hill under a tree with autumn colors and a blue sky background

What’s With All The Hate?

A Glimmer in the Ashes

The Emergence of a Global Culture