Prejudice and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by Dr Shani Burke, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, member of the ‘Vulnerable Victims and Offenders in the Criminal Justice’ research theme. Email:

There is little else we discuss or read about in the media nowadays that is not related to COVID-19. The virus has spread rapidly across the globe whilst we await the distribution of the vaccine. During a crisis, minority groups can be stigmatised and subjected to harassment, and the coronavirus pandemic has been no exception. Hate crimes and hate speech towards Asian people, as well as boycotting of businesses, are on the rise since coronavirus was recorded as coming from Wuhan, China in December 2019 (YouGov, 2020).

Xenophobia or an increase in experiences of prejudice during outbreaks of infectious diseases can be common. This is because people try to avoid groups seen as having a high infection rate in order to reduce the perceived likelihood of contracting the illness (O’Shea et al., 2019), thus creating an ‘outgroup’ and a sense of ‘us versus them’. Donald Trump has constructed the virus as coming from ‘the outgroup’ by referring to coronavirus as the ‘china virus’ and ‘kung flu’. Trump has also put forward conspiracy theories that the virus was engineered in a lab in China, and he claims to know more about the coronavirus than many experts (NBC Boston, 2020). Such a construction of nationalism victimizes the ‘us’ group by removing ‘our’ accountability for causing the disease, thus blaming the ‘them’ group.

Discursive Psychology approaches the study of prejudice as a social action, flexible in its nature and rhetorically complex (e.g., Billig, 1991; Wetherell & Potter, 1992). The discursive focus on prejudice as a form of communication shifts the focus from prejudice being a matter of cognition to being a social problem, thus something that speakers are accountable for (for further reading, see Burke & Demasi, 2021). Therefore, people use discursive strategies to present hostile or prejudicial views towards ‘outgroups’ as reasonable, for example, blaming ethnic minorities for the prejudice against them because they are ‘being different’. Such blame constructions normalise prejudice towards minority groups by presenting it as legitimate (Tileagă, 2005). Politicians such as Trump are using the virus as an accelerator for maintaining a sense of nationalism and marginalising the perceived ‘other’, exacerbating existing negative attitudes that his supporters may have already had towards Asians (Huo, 2020).

Social Psychologists such as Haslam (2020) suggest that during a crisis, leaders need to create a unified sense of ‘us’, rather than a portrayal of ‘us and them’, as such threats worsen the general public’s sense of fear.  One way to do this would be by talking to the public openly about future plans, as that includes them in solving the problem together. Additionally, presenting the fight against COVID-19 as a shared social problem that we can all contribute to so that politicians are with the public, not against them. Trump has since been permanently suspended from Twitter due to how his tweets can potentially mobilise audiences and have the potential to incite further violence. This came after the Capitol riots on 6th January 2021, when Trump urged his supporters to march on Capitol Hill in protest of Joe Biden’s victory. This demonstrates how impressionable the discourse of politicians can be on their supporters.

Fighting COVID-19 should be a form of collective action and there should only be one collective ‘us’.  Researchers advocate that messages from politicians should reach out to our shared human values of openness and responsibility when it comes to fighting the pandemic rather than dividing us. Our role as researchers should be to focus on how our behaviour can help to not only curb the spread of the virus but address the inequalities that it creates in society too.


Billig, M. (1991). Ideology and opinions – studies in rhetorical psychology. Sage Publications.

Burke, S., and Demasi, M. A. (2021). “This Country Will Be Big Racist One Day”: Extreme Prejudice as Reasoned Discourse in Face-to-Face    Interactions. In Demasi, M. A., Burke, S. & Tileagă, C. (Eds.). Political Communication: Discursive Perspectives. Palgrave.

Haslam, S. A. (2020). Leadership. In Jetten, J., Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., & Cruwys, T. (Eds.). Together Apart. The Psychology Of COVID-19.  Sage Publications.

Huo, Y. J. (2020). Prejudice and racism. In Jetten, J., Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., & Cruwys, (Eds.). Together Apart. The Psychology Of COVID-19. Sage Publications.

NBC Boston (2020, September 18). Trump Says He Knows Better Than Experts: ‘In Many Cases, I Do’.

 O’Shea, B. A., Watson, D. G., & Brown, G. D. A. (2019). Infectious Disease Prevalence, Not Race Exposure, Predicts Both Implicit and Explicit Racial Prejudice Across the United States. Social Psychological and Personality Science 11(3), 345-355.   Doi:10.1177/1948550619862319 (2019).

Tileagă, C. (2005). Accounting for Extreme Prejudice and legitimating Blame in talk about The Romanies. Discourse and Society 16 (5), 603-624. doi: 10.1177/0957926505054938.

Wetherell, M., & Potter, J. (1992). Mapping the language of racism: Discourse and the legitimation of exploitation. Harvester Wheatsheaf and Columbia University Press.

YouGov (2020). YouGov Survey Results, Internal Racism in BAME adults.