Preventing COVID-19 prejudice in academia

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Science  20 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6484, pp. 1313
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb4870

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U.S. college students consider next steps after an announcement that classes will be held online for 3 weeks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.


The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak has triggered global panic (1). Because the disease emerged in China and most of the affected individuals so far have been of Asian origin, a backlash of Asia-phobic reactions has been reported in various regions of the world (24). As it moves through Europe, Europeans may also be at risk of discrimination. Given that xenophobia during outbreaks is not uncommon (5), universities should proactively develop policies that support students, faculty, and staff affected by discriminatory behavior both now and in the future. To study or work abroad, members of academia often must travel far from home, adapt to another culture, and overcome a language barrier. Facing prejudice, including discrimination related to COVID-19, may add to feelings of isolation (6, 7) and affect career development, especially for students.

Preventive measures by universities to lessen prejudice should include transparency about the disease status, data gathering, and direction about appropriate behavior. University administrators should release reassuring statements about the local COVID-19 situation that supplement the information released by health authorities. Academic administrators should survey students and staff of Asian origin (as well as others if appropriate) to determine whether they have experienced any prejudice related to COVID-19 and whether they expect university authorities to take any additional action. The administrators should also release statements that explain that in Asia, people wear masks for a variety of reasons, such as to filter polluted air, make fashion or political statements, or provide social indicators that they want to be left alone in public spaces (8). Typical surgical face masks do not necessarily indicate someone is sick, and as many students are likely aware, they do not provide complete protection against viral infections (9).

Universities can also launch social media campaigns that support Asian and Asian-American students (and other targets) in the form of infographics or videos. Both university administrators and department heads should issue a notice that COVID-19–related prejudice or xenophobic reactions from academic staff and other students will not be tolerated and will be treated in accordance with anti-discrimination laws. Finally, university leaders at all levels should encourage students and academic staff to provide extra support and kindness to Asian and other international students during the ongoing outbreak.

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