The Role of an Inclusive Leader When the Coronavirus Spreads Fear, Racism, and Xenophobia

by Monica Francois Marcel and Sarah Froning Nodarse

Inspired by our friends at Boston Scientific and their Global Chief Diversity Officer Camille Chang Gilmore, LCW crafted some FAQs this week to support inclusive leaders, and tackle the xenophobia and racism that seem to spread with COVID-19.

Should we be worried that our company may restrict travel to some regions?

Putting fears in context, as of March 2, 2020, the virus has killed approximately 2,100 people GLOBALLY. By comparison, EACH YEAR 290,000 to 650,000 people die of the flu. (1) As we see signs of containment, organizations will update travel guidelines. In the meantime, help make sure that your teams are equipped with facts, and not operating with fear or unconscious bias regarding how this virus is spread.

As an inclusive leader, what do I need to watch out for with the COVID-19 Spread?

Throughout history, it has been common for minority groups and persecuted or marginalized populations to face discrimination and/or attacks from majority groups throughout during disease outbreaks. (2). Today, fears of the virus are causing “ethnophobia” – mostly against Chinese people but also against other Asians – around the world. (3) Furthermore, social media can exacerbate the spread of misinformation, racial stereotyping, and fear mongering during times of perceived public emergency (4). As a people leader today, your organization’s culture is your responsibility.

What can I say, to help stop the spread of racial tensions related to the COVID-19 Spread?

Help stop fear by letting people know that being of Asian descent does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19. The CDC website posted this message on its “Share Facts Not Fear” website to rein in the ignorance in the USA for example (5):

People of Asian descent, including Chinese Americans, are not more likely to get COVID-19 than any other American. Help stop fear by letting people know that being of Asian descent does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19.

Likewise, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has established a Q&A site to ensure that people are equipped with facts not fear. (6)

Are you suggesting that I disregard my health and that of my family/friends, because my temporary aversion to mingling with people who are more likely to have contact with people who have been in China (a country at the epicenter of the virus outbreak) is somehow unfairly ‘biased’?

Everyone should take reasonable precautions to avoid contact with people who may have been exposed to the virus. Specifically, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that travelers returning from specific areas of the world (China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, and Japan)—regardless of their nationality or ethnicity—are at higher risk for having the virus. (7) Thus, it would be reasonable to avoid contact with people who have returned from any of these countries in the last two weeks. However, this does NOT mean that we should call out, label, or stigmatize anyone simply because they look like they may be from one of those countries. 

What can I do if I see someone being mistreated or hear biased statements?

As an inclusive leader, you should keep in mind your commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion… and ensure that you are responding appropriately to discrimination, as well as to subtler microaggressions. In the many trainings that our firm LCW offers on how to mitigate unconscious bias and build a culture of inclusion, we emphasize that to say nothing when such instances arise serves to condone the discrimination or microaggression. Practice speaking up, and if you don’t know what to say, start by asking the person who made the comment “Really? What do you mean by that?”

What can I use as a guide when I don’t know how to respond to biased or exclusionary acts around me?

Whatever the situation, be guided by your values. In moments of crisis, inclusive leaders are careful to help regulate the situation, align words and actions with intention, and help ensure that all people are respected. Help make sure facts and not fear are spread.

Where can I read more about this topic?

Check out these resources:


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