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

By Monica Francois Marcel, Sarah Froning Nodarse & Shona Ramchandani

Inspired by our friends at Boston Scientific and 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 be spreading with the COVID-19 pandemic. We have since updated the FAQs to include a note on racial equity.

How long until things go back to normal?

The honest answer: we don’t know, and we should prepare ourselves for a ‘new normal’ since many things will be (forever?) different going forward. Look to organizations to update details like travel guidelines and stay-at-home protocols as the situation evolves.

In the meantime, you can help to make sure that your teams are equipped with facts, and not operating with fear or unconscious bias regarding how this virus is spread, or who is affected. As of April 6, 2020, the virus has killed over 71,000 people globally (click on the link for the latest numbers). By comparison, each year 290,000 to 650,000 people typically die of the flu. For more information on what distinguishes COVID-19, click here.

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 during disease outbreaks. Today, fears of the virus are causing “ethnophobia” – mostly against Chinese people but also against other Asians – around the world. Furthermore, social media can exacerbate the spread of misinformation, racial stereotyping, and fear mongering during times of perceived public emergency.

Inclusive leaders should also watch out for the ways that COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing social inequities. Because of cultural experiences of being stigmatized or racial profiled when wearing a mask, for example, some feel unsafe following the medical guidance of using masks to stem the spread of the virus. Data is also starting to reveal that COVID-19 is killing certain communities at disproportionately high rates than others; in Chicago 70% of deaths as of April 6, 2020 were from the Black community—further highlighting the consequences of long-term systemic inequities in medical care today.

In light of such examples, inclusive leaders can move beyond awareness to action—and cease the present moment as an opportunity to find innovative ways to engage those who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 today—both inside their organizations, and outside in their local communities. Consider partnering with your Employee Resource Group or Community Affairs teams, to find ways you and your team make a difference locally for those feeling isolated or left behind.

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

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 website to rein in the ignorance in the USA, for example:

“It is important to remember that people – including those of Asian descent – who do not live in or have not recently been in an area of ongoing spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, or have not been in contact with a person who is a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 are not at greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than other Americans.”

Likewise, the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has established a Fact Sheet to ensure that people are equipped with facts not fear.

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. However, this does NOT mean that we should call out, label, or stigmatize anyone simply because they look like they may be from a particular country or background. Such behavior only serves to further stigmatize groups who are not in fact more likely to be affected than others.

What guidance is recommended for members of the Asian-American community, who may experience bias or attacks first-hand?

Given the number of reports of xenophobic attacks, members of the Asian-American community are understandably concerned about what they can do to protect themselves. For example, if you are from this community and being verbally harassed, first try to physically remove yourself to safety, and stay alert to any opportunities you may have to defuse the situation so you can maximize your safety. Unfortunately, if the situation does unfold into a physical attack, follow best practices for self-defense, such as continuing to maintain your calm as much as you can, while locating  how to get to where there are more people in an effort to deter the attacker. Once the situation has been resolved, it’s very important to report the incident to the police or appropriate authority, as well as logging it with groups that are specifically tracking xenophobia as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and, as you feel comfortable, sharing the incident with others in your community so that they can also be prepared. Don’t forget that self-care is essential. And if you do experience an attack, be sure to leverage resources designed to help.

As an ally, 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 for more detail on the topics covered in this FAQ:

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