Responding to Racism Incited by Coronavirus

Note to Teachers: News about the new coronavirus (COVID-19) has been evolving rapidly as the disease continues to spread. Stay informed about the latest information using The Guardian’s Coronavirus at a Glance series, which is frequently updated, or another trusted news source. The information in this Teaching Idea was last updated March 9, 2020.

Since January, the world has been on high alert concerning the spread of the new strain of coronavirus, COVID-19. The virus, which in severe cases causes pneumonia, respiratory problems, and even death, emerged in Wuhan, China, in December and has since spread to over 145 countries, across 6 continents.1 As more cases are reported daily, anxiety concerning the virus and our ability to contain it grows. This anxiety has been coupled with a rise in racism, xenophobia, and discrimination: in Europe and North America, many people of Asian heritage have been racially abused in public and wrongfully blamed for the spread of the virus. It is, therefore, vital to ensure that young people are aware of the facts, so that they understand what COVID-19 is and do not discriminate against others in a culture of heightened fear.

This Teaching Idea outlines the known facts about COVID-19 and gives students the opportunity to explore instances of discrimination related to this novel strain of coronavirus. Providing students with factually correct information and opportunities to reflect on the consequences of discrimination makes them less likely to participate in coronavirus-inspired racism and encourages them to challenge such othering if, or when, they encounter it.

  1. Introduce the Facts about Coronavirus

    Explain to students that since the start of the coronavirus outbreak people of Asian heritage have been the target of racist abuse in Europe and North America, whilst in Asia, Chinese people have been targeted and discriminated against. They have been called names, excluded from places, and blamed for the spread of the virus because people have judged them on their appearance and/or nationality, using the fact that the virus began in China as the basis for their discrimination. Inform your students that these instances of discrimination make it all the more important for them to understand the facts about COVID-19 and how it spreads, so that they can discuss it in an informed manner and so that they understand that the virus is not linked to one group of people.

    First, ask students to discuss the following questions in pairs:

    • What do you know about coronavirus?
    • How has coronavirus been appearing in the news?
    • How are people responding to the news about coronavirus?
    • How does coronavirus make you feel?

    Invite students to share their ideas with the class, if desired.

    Next, project the following facts on the board in turn and read them as a class using a read aloud strategy (Note: You might choose to read some of the embedded links to enhance your own background knowledge, or share them with students who have additional questions):

    • The new strain of coronavirus, which is called COVID-19, first appeared in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.
    • Coronaviruses are a family of zoonotic viruses, which means that they can transfer between animals and humans. Scientists are not yet sure of the animal that transmitted COVID-19.
    • Coronaviruses get their name from corona, the Latin word for crown, because under a microscope they have crown-like spikes protruding from their surfaces.
    • Coronaviruses are not new—coronavirus outbreaks in the past, such as MERS and SARS, have been contained.
    • COVID-19 is contagious and can kill. It is very difficult to estimate how deadly the disease is at this point, but researchers believe that under 2% of people who catch the disease will be killed. The fatality rate of COVID-19 is lower than some strains of coronavirus such as SARS (10%) and MERS (34%), but higher than other strains that cause the common cold.2
    • COVID-19 impacts people differently—some people who are infected will have no symptoms, others will only develop a cough or a fever, whilst others can have serious symptoms such as pneumonia.
    • Children appear to be much less likely to catch the new coronavirus, and if they do, they tend to have milder symptoms. The people most at risk from exposure to coronavirus are the elderly and those who have pre-existing health problems.
    • To protect yourself against the spread of the virus, health officials recommend you wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, cover your coughs and sneezes, and engage in social distancing.
    • The majority of people infected with coronavirus fully recover.
    • There is not currently a vaccine for COVID-19. Scientists are working hard on developing a vaccine, but it is likely to take a year before one is ready.

    Respond to any questions the students might have, then ask them to complete a S-I-T activity, using the information that they just read on coronaviruses and COVID-19. Finally, lead a quick class discussion using the following questions:

    • Has learning the facts about coronavirus and COVID-19 changed the way you view the virus? Explain your answer.
    • Why is it important to find out the facts when trying to understand a new situation or something in the news?

    Additional Resources

    If you would like to give your students more information about the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, here are some useful resources:

    For younger learners:

    For older learners:

  2. Explore Examples of Coronavirus-linked Racism

    Explain to your students that they will be reading an article about incidents of racism that have occurred since the outbreak of the new coronavirus. You may wish to begin by outlining the scope of the racist abuse by reading the following paragraph:

    All over the world, Chinese and Asian people have been subject to racism since the coronavirus outbreak. In Asia, there has been widespread anti-Chinese sentiment, also known as Sinophobia, whilst in countries across Europe, Australia, and North America, people with Asian heritage have been targeted with racist abuse and, in some cases, have even been assaulted. In Rome, Italy, a cafe placed a sign banning Chinese people from entering;3 in New York, United States, an Asian woman wearing a mask was hit and kicked on the subway;4 in Aberystwyth, Wales, a market trader of Tawainese heritage was asked to leave the Market Hall where she runs a stall;5 in the Netherlands, a university dormitory was sprayed with the phrase “Die Chinese”; in Melbourne, Australia, Asian doctors and nurses have been racially abused at the Royal Children’s Hospital by parents of patients; and all over the world, Chinese restaurants have suffered enormous economic losses as people have stopped eating in them.6 These listed examples are just a few of the racist incidents that have been reported on news sites around the world since the outbreak of COVID-19, and they all highlight how Chinese and Asian people are being targeted because of their appearance and/or nationality.

    Show your students one of the following videos, in which people discuss their experiences of coronavirus-linked racism:


    Next, inform students that they will be reading an article to discuss coronavirus-linked racism in further depth. Give students a copy of the Mother Jones article The Coronavirus Is Inflaming the UK's Racism and read it as a class using a read aloud strategy.

    Then, discuss the following questions as a class:

    • The anxiety and fear people feel in times of crisis can lead to a focus on difference and a tendency to stigmatise or scapegoat. How has this been happening with the new coronavirus?
    • In what ways have people of Chinese and Asian heritage been targeted since the outbreak of coronavirus? What have been the consequences of this discrimination?
    • How does this discrimination link to wider issues of race and identity in society?
    • What can we all do to prevent discrimination during this outbreak?
  3. Give Students the Opportunity to Consolidate Their Learning and Become Upstanders

    Ask students to work in pairs and design an anti-bullying poster that discourages people from reacting to the new coronavirus with racism. Inform students that it may be useful to focus both on promoting the facts concerning COVID-19, and on the impact of coronavirus-based racism on the victims. If useful, provide your students with the following poster titles:

    • Find Out the Facts
    • Don’t Discriminate
    • Act with Empathy
    • Are You “Joking” at Someone Else’s Expense?

    Give students an opportunity to share their posters in a gallery walk.

  4. Final Reflection

    Next, ask students to respond in their journals to the following questions:

    • How, if at all, has this lesson impacted how you feel about coronavirus?
    • How has this conversation added to your thinking about what it means to take care of your community at this moment?
    • Whose responsibility is it to challenge coronavirus-related racism and discrimination? Explain your answer.

    Give the students the chance to share any ideas they feel comfortable sharing with a partner in a Think, Pair, Share before inviting some students, if they would like, to share what they wrote with the class.

    Extension: Connect to History

    Share with your students that racist reactions to the new coronavirus build on a long association between disease and “outsiders.” In the United States, for example, people have a history of falsely blaming immigrants for outbreaks of disease, despite the fact that “the number of ‘diseased’ immigrants has always been infinitesimal when compared with the number of newcomers admitted to this country.”7 A recent report conducted in the United States reveals that immigrants on average actually have better health according to many key health indicators than the US-born population. Furthermore, many racist attacks target people who are perceived to be foreign, and it is impossible to tell by looking at a person where they were born or what their nationality is.

    Show your students two historical cartoons that depict the false connection between disease and “outsiders.”

    Analyse the images with your students. Ask them:

    • What details stand out to you when you see the cartoons?
    • How do the cartoons show the false idea that disease is connected to foreigners?

    Then, use the Connect, Extend, Challenge framework to discuss how this history can inform students’ thinking about people’s reactions to the new coronavirus:

    • How does this history connect to what you know about people’s reactions to the new coronavirus today?
    • How do these cartoons extend or broaden your thinking about people’s reactions to the new coronavirus?
    • How do these cartoons challenge or complicate your understanding of people’s reactions to the new coronavirus?

Additional Reading

To read more about how coronavirus-linked racism is impacting Asians and migrants around the world, here are some useful articles:

  1. The Coronavirus Exposes the History of Racism and "Cleanliness" (Vox)
  2. This Is the Real Reason Outbreaks Like the Coronavirus are so Quick to Inspire Racism (The Independent)
  3. Chinese Students Flee UK After 'Maskaphobia' Triggered Racist Attacks(The Guardian)
  4. Sinophobia: How Coronavirus Reveals the Many Ways China is Feared (BBC)
  5. The New Coronavirus is Not an Excuse to be Racist (The Verge)
  6. Migrants Aren’t Spreading Coronavirus – But Nationalists Are Blaming Them Anyway (The Guardian)


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