Role of perception in the discrimination against people with COVID-19

I am not a virus.' How this artist is illustrating coronavirus ...

The on-going COVID-19 pandemic crisis has had severe implications on the economic and social landscapes of the world. It has caused a substantial amount of deaths and has disrupted the workings of the entire world. This has impacted the way we perceive our world and everyday lives. The pandemic has also brought out a whole range of attitudes, prejudices, beliefs, perceptions and stereotypes. The pandemic is extremely infectious and is dangerously quick in spreading. In addition to this, it is a new virus and no vaccine or medical procedure guarantees recovery. This is critical as people are fearful and uncertain about their own safety around corona patients or otherwise. A general perception has been formed and shared amongst several people against people suffering from COVID-19. This has caused several instances of discriminatory behaviour against these patients. There could be many factors in play that might have influenced the perceptions of the masses. Perceptions are instrumental to personal characteristics of the individual as well as the target. The personal characteristics include personality, past experiences, interests, motives and expectations. The target factors include novelty, motion, sounds, size, background, proximity and similarity. The role of perception in the discriminatory behaviour exhibited by the masses can be analysed using these factors as well as common errors in perception.

The perceptual process begins with the environment and leads to perception of a stimulus which eventually results in a behavioural reaction. The uncertainty around infections and their cures causes fear. People do not have the most rational responses under an environment where they are fearful. They associate this fear to “others” in order to reduce the uncertainty. This phenomenon is likely to be responsible for the mass perception developed with regards to corona patients. Consequently, a stigma has been associated with these patients. This causes negative association towards the patients or anyone who is perceived to be a patient. Discriminatory behaviour, stereotyping, differential treatment are all reactions to this stigma. Even people who are not infected with the virus and are merely exhibiting some common symptoms such as coughing are being treated unfairly. There have been many instances where people thought that an individual was infected and instead of aiding, they reacted in an unpleasant manner.

COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China. This fact caused people to form negative perceptions towards the Chinese. In Italy, the rampant pandemic spread was initiated due to two carrier of the virus who were from China. There were several cases of discrimination against the Chinese people living in many countries across the world. They were shunned at and treated unfairly. However, the main question is if this is due to people inherently being racist or if there is some other explanation. The psychological factors should not be ignored in this circumstance as in a pandemic situation, emotional responses are bound to occur. It is important to realize that the perception formed by the masses needs to be exposed to objective reality. The government of India has tried to do the same by using social media, mass media as well as caller ringtones to disseminate information about discrimination of corona patients. They have clearly said that corona patients are not the enemy, corona is. This shows the importance of mass perception as it can be dangerous if it is formed based on irrational and untrue facts. Stigma can undermine social cohesion and prompt possible social isolation of groups, which might contribute to a situation where the virus is more, not less, likely to spread. This can result in more severe health problems and difficulties controlling a disease outbreak.

Past experiences of the people also play an important role in forming their perception. Viruses are known to be extremely dangerous and have caused significant death. When exposed to this fact, people are much more fearful of the pandemic. This causes chaos and confusion. Under this psychological framework, errors in perception are bound to happen. Assigning group guilt, isolating and blaming groups are some of the behavioural responses made under the influence of this erroneous perception. This has severe implications. Such negative perception associated to patients and potential patients drive people to hide the illness just to avoid discrimination. This reduces testing and increases the potential spread of the virus. It prevents them from seeking appropriate medical assistance and adopting essential healthy behaviours.

The Horn effect is a perceptual error which resembles the current situation quite appropriately. The horn effect is when an individual is completely judged and treated based on his negative aspect. The corona patients are perceived as “negative” or “bad” or “dangerous” based purely on the fact that have been infected by the virus. It is not considered that they are fighting for their lives and they are in the situation that they are in just because they were unlucky. Another perceptual error is stereotyping which is currently rampant.

Chinese and Asian races are being discriminated all over the world. This is purely due to the negative perception formed which identifies Chinese and Asian races as “dangerous” and blames them for the misery caused in the world. This stigma and perception associated with patients and races is extremely serious as it escalates and gets out of hand quickly. It starts with differential treatment and ends with extreme racism and associating group guilt to individuals.

Negative perception has also caused segregation of people. This further facilitates stigmatisation and normalises routine differential behaviours. Stigmatization causes resentment. As the number of patients rise, if the perception does not change there could be dire consequences. Just like HIV and leprosy patients demanded rights and concessions, COVID-19 patients could walk the same path. Protests and riots are potential consequences. This was seen in Indore, where a group of patients protested and attacked a peaceful contingent of doctors who just wanted to provide medical assistance. However, due to constant discrimination, resentment exceeded the level of tolerance and violent demonstrations were made. When the importance of mass perception as well as the consequences are realised, precise steps to avoid the development of negative perception can be taken.

Erroneous perception has not only facilitated stigmatization towards covid-19 patients but also influenced behaviour to anyone and anything perceived to be associated to covid-19. There have been numerous instances where healthcare workers and police officers have been subjected to differential treatment. The famous beer named Corona had been boycotted. A rumour which said that covid-19 spread rampantly due to the 5G towers caused people to try and burn down these towers. Normally these reactions seem extremely irrational and could be cases of blatant ignorance. However, in this case it could be explained by the mass perception of stigma and hatred towards anything associated to the pandemic. There is no doubt that perception plays a significant role in the discriminatory behaviours exhibited by several people against covid-19 patients.

It is important to inculcate the right attitude in people towards the pandemic situation as it will strengthen the fight against coronavirus. In order to accomplish this, the perception towards the same must be modified. Misconceptions, rumours and misinformation are contributing to stigma and discrimination which hamper response efforts. Correcting

misconceptions, at the same time as acknowledging that people’s feelings and subsequent behaviour are very real, even if the underlying assumption is false is vital. Another way to modify perception could be to promote the importance of prevention, lifesaving actions, early screening and treatment. Collective solidarity and global cooperation are needed to prevent further transmission and alleviate the concerns of communities. Share sympathetic narratives, or stories that humanize the experiences and struggles of individuals or groups affected by the new coronavirus. Communicating support and encouragement for those who are on the frontlines of response to this outbreak (health care workers, volunteers, community leaders etc) is necessary. Facts and not fear will stop the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Objectivity is facilitated when accurate facts are revealed, and hoaxes and myths are debunked. We need to Share facts and accurate information about the disease. Challenging myth and stereotype is another important step. Choose words carefully and precisely when addressing anything related to the pandemic. Words have enormous power and influential abilities. The way we communicate can affect the attitudes of others. The government leaders need to use the power of speech to influence and steer the perception of the masses in t a direction where it is productive and does not hamper the ongoing fight against the pandemic. The mass media should ensure that accurate information and facts are being disseminated to the masses. People should be enlightened to the fact that solidarity and unity is the way to go forward and not discriminatory behaviour. These steps could be critical as they could influence perception and bring about change in attitudes and behaviours in the society.

“In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act”

George orwell

Author: Shruti Yadav

Studies Business Administration at Bennett University (2019-22)