Pandemics and epidemics could exacerbate racism xenophobia

September 16, 2020

When viruses, parasites and other pathogens spread, humans and other animals tend to hunker down with immediate family and peer groups to avoid outsiders as much as possible. But could these instincts, developed to protect us from illnesses, generalize into avoidance of healthy individuals who simply look, speak or live differently?

Jessica Stephenson, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh Department of Biological Sciences, coauthored a paper exploring the answer, which was recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B.

"During epidemics, humans tend to become overly sensitive, so any sort of physical abnormality that somebody has suddenly becomes a potential indicator of infection. We become much more bigoted, we pay way more attention to things that differentiate people from what we perceive as our own phenotype. People who look different from us and sound different from us, which, of course, leads to a lot more xenophobia," said Stephenson, who runs Stephenson Lab of Disease Ecology and Evolutionary Parasitology at Pitt.

One example noted in the study showed that black garden ants exposed to a fungus clustered together in groups much smaller than researchers could predict by chance, which effectively limited the spread of disease. Similar behaviors seen among 19 non-human primate species were also credited for lowering direct spread of parasites.

Human beings share these same biological impulses to separate into modular social groups. However, when pathogens are spreading, humans tend to also adopt a set of behaviors that are "hyper vigilant and particularly error prone," the researchers wrote.

"It's interesting and really disappointing," Stephenson said.

As COVID-19 continues its spread, humans are even more susceptible to the impulse.

"We shouldn't discriminate against different groups in our social distancing, or in our efforts to work together to beat the virus," she said. "But I think our natural, evolved tendencies would be to associate only within our ingroups. We have to fight that natural antipathy towards people who differ from ourselves, and not shut down."
-end-
For more information or to discuss the study with Stephenson, contact dmtodd@pitt.edu.

University of Pittsburgh

Related Pathogens Articles from Brightsurf:

Pathogens in the mouth induce oral cancer
Pathogens found in tissues that surround the teeth contribute to a highly aggressive type of oral cancer, according to a study published 1st October in the open-access journal PLOS Pathogens by Yvonne Kapila of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues.

A titanate nanowire mask that can eliminate pathogens
Researchers in Lásló Forró's lab at EPFL, Switzerland, are working on a membrane made of titanium oxide nanowires, similar in appearance to filter paper but with antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Plastics, pathogens and baby formula: What's in your shellfish?
The first landmark study using next-generation technology to comprehensively examine contaminants in oysters in Myanmar reveals alarming findings: the widespread presence of human bacterial pathogens and human-derived microdebris materials, including plastics, kerosene, paint, talc and milk supplement powders.

The Parkinson's disease gut has an overabundance of opportunistic pathogens
In 2003, Heiko Braak proposed that Parkinson's disease is caused by a pathogen in the gut that could pass through the intestinal mucosal barrier and spread to the brain through the nervous system.

Crop pathogens 'remarkably adaptable'
Pathogens that attack agricultural crops show remarkable adaptability to new climates and new plant hosts, new research shows.

Inexpensive, portable detector identifies pathogens in minutes
Most viral test kits rely on labor- and time-intensive laboratory preparation and analysis techniques; for example, tests for the novel coronavirus can take days to detect the virus from nasal swabs.

Outsmarting pathogens
A new influenza strain appears each flu season, rendering past vaccines ineffective.

Autonomous microtrap for pathogens
Antibiotics are more efficient when they can act on their target directly at the site of infestation, without dilution.

Acidic environment could boost power of harmful pathogens
New findings published in PLOS Pathogens suggest lower pH in the digestive tract may make some bacterial pathogens even more dangerous.

Protozoans and pathogens make for an infectious mix
The new observation that strains of V. cholerae can be expelled into the environment after being ingested by protozoa, and that these bacteria are then primed for colonisation and infection in humans, could help explain why cholera is so persistent in aquatic environments.

Read More: Pathogens News and Pathogens Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.